House OKs bill to make Massachusetts more climate resilient

BOSTON (AP) — A bill authorizing Massachusetts to borrow up to $300 million to better prepare for the effects of climate change sailed through the Democratic-controlled House on Wednesday, months after a series of potent winter storms battered the state's coastline.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker proposed in March that several strategic steps be taken to make the state more resilient to "extreme weather, sea level rise, inland flooding and other climate impacts."

The $300 million is intended to help cities and towns shore up aging seawalls and dams vulnerable to storm surges and heavy rainfall. The authorization was included in a more than $2 billion environmental bond bill that cleared the House on a 143-3 vote and now moves to the Senate.

"We've seen over the last few winters how much devastation can take place on our coastlines," said Democratic Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, House chair of the Legislature's Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee.

Massachusetts and much of the U.S. Northeast were battered early this year by four storms that caused massive power outages and damage to countless homes and businesses.

While no direct connection can be made between the storms and climate change, experts believe warming temperatures and rising seas are increasing the frequency of severe weather and coastal flooding.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week that U.S. coastal communities experienced a record number of high-tide flooding days during the May 2017-April 2018 meteorological year, and agency scientists projected that high-tide flooding in the current year could be 60 percent higher compared with just two decades ago.

"As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause coastal high tide flooding," the NOAA said in a statement. "High tide flooding causes frequent road closures, overwhelmed storm drains, and compromised infrastructure."

Baker, a moderate who opposed President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, has asked the president for a federal disaster declaration to recover costs from two of the recent storms, one that struck on March 2-3 and the other March 13.

The March 2-3 storm, which packed hurricane-force wind gusts of 80 to 90 mph (129 to 145 kph), resulted in two deaths, caused historic coastal flooding over three high-tide cycles and damaged at least 2,113 homes, Baker wrote in his request.

The legislation passed by the House on Wednesday requires Massachusetts officials to develop a statewide climate adaptation plan to cope with climate change impact and update the plan at least every five years.

The bill would create a director of environmental justice, a new position within state government responsible for assuring that neighborhoods with large numbers of low-income and minority residents receive equivalent funding and attention for pollution cleanup and other environmental matters.