Much of downtown Buchana was underwater during the Flood of 1985 and portions of it reguarly flood during lesser storms. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

In downtown Buchanan, there used to be a restaurant known as the G&R. The most notable thing about the eatery was outside. On the wall, the owners had marked the height of the various floods that have regularly inundated the Botetourt County town at the foot of Purgatory Mountain, much the way a parent tracks a growing child. The high point was the great Flood of 1985 – the so-called Election Day flood – when the James River crested at 38.84 feet, about 21.84 feet above the official flood stage, and left much of downtown underwater.

In 1985, the water was up almost to the roof of the white addition to this building in downtown Buchanan. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Time, like the river, moves on. The restaurant is gone. It’s been an antique store and is now a real estate office, and at some point new owners painted over the flood marks. Just because the conversation point is gone doesn’t mean the threat of flooding is, though. The National Weather Service counts 79 official floods in Buchanan over 144 years of weather record, roughly one every 1.82 years. The last one was 2019 – that one crested at a modest 17.92 feet – which means the town is overdue for yet another flood, particularly another big one.

And that’s what has led Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, to look to the state for some relief, specifically the $227.6 million the state has collected in its first year of participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade (some prefer “cap-and-invest”) program designed to raise the price of carbon-based fuels and thereby discourage their use. After all, by law, 45% of the funds from RGGI – pronounced “Reggie” for those who throw around the lingo – are intended to go toward a Community Flood Preparedness Fund. Buchanan is a community – a rather charming one as long it’s not underwater – and it definitely has floods.

Farther southwest, Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, also has his eyes on the RGGI funds. In August, a flood devastated the town of Hurley in Buchanan County. By devastated, I don’t mean just high water; I mean mountains melting under the deluge, with rocks and dirt and trees sliding down the mountainsides and wiping out whatever was in their way. One person died, but it’s a miracle that more didn’t. What happened in Hurley seems similar to what happened to Nelson County during the infamous Hurricane Camille flood of 1969.

Stephanie Stiltner’s home in Hurley was damaged but is being rebuilt, unlike several nearby houses. “We have issues here, but my neighbors’ houses aren’t even standing,” she said. “To walk back off that hill and see nothing where stuff had been all your life, it is just — I don’t even have a word for it. Devastating is the best word I’ve got.” Photo by Lakin Keene.

Because of where Hurley is – wedged into a corner of the mountains where Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky all come together – that flood didn’t get much attention. The weekly newspapers there sure covered it (and still are), but they don’t have websites, so the flood in Hurley has remained mostly out of sight, out of mind for much of Virginia. Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel visited Hurley in November – nearly three months after the flood – and found people still living in trailers. The Federal Emergency Management Agency wasn’t much impressed, though, and turned down a request for relief. Virginia’s two senators – Mark Warner and Tim Kaine – and the region’s congressman – Morgan Griffith – appealed to President Biden but FEMA still turned down Hurley for a second time.

One FEMA denial was enough for Morefield; he’s filed a bill that would have the effect of using some of those RGGI funds for Hurley (and a separate budget request for $11 million in state aid). “I don’t know how we can honestly look in the eyes of the people that have been affected and just simply give them words of encouragement when we have the ability to legislatively solve this,” Morefield said.

You’d think his bill would be one of those that would sail through, but the ways of Richmond are mysterious and often perilous. Morefield has gotten word that the insurance lobby doesn’t think much of his bill – perhaps they’re concerned that state-sponsored flood relief might discourage people from buying flood insurance? That’s odd since many of those in Hurley who did have insurance are finding their policies won’t pay to cover the damage to their homes.  Those who would stand in the way of Morefield’s bill risk getting tagged as hard-hearted flatlanders willing to write off some of their fellow citizens in a moment of misfortune, although that sort of thing has certainly happened before.

Morefield’s bill about Hurley, and Austin’s effort to find a way for the state to mitigate Buchanan’s perpetual flooding problems, also signal something else: Set a pot of money down in Richmond and a lot of people will take an interest in it. That’s why some in the environmental community aren’t keen about the bill, either. “We’re watching Morefield’s bill with some concern, since it signals that this fund is a cash cow to be carved up,” says Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch in Norfolk.

There is much controversy about the whole RGGI program. Those on the left see this as a way to put a price on pollution and thereby get less of it. Those on the right think it does no such thing, because utilities are allowed to pass on the price to customers, who have no choice about where they buy their electricity, only whether to turn their lights on or off. The left sees this as a tax on carbon; the right sees this as a tax on consumers. Both, in their own way, are right, of course, but that doesn’t lessen the controversy. Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, being a Republican, sees this as a tax that drives up the cost of business and has announced his intention to pull Virginia out of RGGI. Whether he can actually do so is, in itself, a matter of controversy since Virginia’s participation was established legislatively.

I’ll let the politicians (and the lawyers) argue that one out. I’m more interested in the many ironies that abound here, ironies that go back decades.

Cap-and-trade programs – where companies that don’t pollute as much as they’re permitted are allowed to sell those credits to companies who do exceed the gap – have become something Republicans don’t like. The first irony: They were actually a Republican idea. In the late ’80s, the big issue was acid rain. Those on the left wanted to set hard limits for how much pollution every coal-fired plant could emit. Those on the right warned that the costs were out of line with the likely benefit. In 1988, then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush announced he had a market-based way to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, the two main contributors to acid rain. He encountered skepticism from both Democrats and Republicans, just for different reasons. As president, Bush prevailed, though, and a cap-and-trade program for acid rain was written into the 1990 Clean Air Act. A 2018 study by Harvard University concluded that: “In practice, the idea worked even better than advertised. The acid rain program achieved more reductions than required and did so at lower costs than projected.”

That led some to want to extend the cap-and-trade program to other things. You’d think that Republicans would have embraced a Republican idea that had worked. Nay, not just embraced but touted it. Oh you silly boys and girls. Instead, they turned against it. In 2010, Morgan Griffith used opposition to cap-and-trade to win a congressional seat in Southwest Virginia that had been considered safely Democratic.

More ironies: Cap-and-trade for coal didn’t happen but coal declined anyway, raising the question of whether the coal industry might have been better off if it had accepted cap-and-trade. We’ll never know, now will we?

Now it’s Democrats who espouse a market-based solution, with RGGI being just the latest example. And what a market it is: In Virginia’s first year of participation, revenue was more than double expectations. (Of course, if you’re opposed to the program, the proper way to read this is that electricity consumers got charged twice as much as expected.) Either way, Republicans who opposed the program see the money it’s producing and want to use some of it in their communities.

So far, the ironies have been all on the Republican side, but some fall on the Democratic side, too. When Democrats in the General Assembly passed RGGI in 2020, the flood problems that got talked about were on the coast, with rising sea levels. The director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Fund declared: “By passing this bill, we will make polluters pay for their climate damage. We will then invest that money in home weatherization for low-income Virginians and sea level rise adaptation for vulnerable coastal residents. This is a win-win for protecting our common societal home.”

If the costs simply got passed onto consumers, it’s hard to see how polluters actually paid, but even if they somehow did, notice the emphasis on the coast. In all the reporting I’ve found about RGGI, the focus on flood control was on the coast. Indeed, the biggest projects in the initial round of grants — $24.5 million announced in December — were all on or near the coast, with $9.16 million of that going to Hampton, $4.9 millin going to Newport News and $3.75 million going to Alexandria. (To be fair, Roanoke got $135,000 and Christiansburg got $44,520, among others). Now come two more supplicants – Buchanan and Hurley – and they’re nowhere near the coast. And yet they have floods. Bad ones. Regular ones. And in the case of Hurley, one that just happened and whose effects are still all too visible. It’s fair to say that the authors of this legislation – who were from the eastern part of Virginia – probably did not have in mind that the first community asking for some of the funds would be in the heart of coal country. And yet here we are.

Some in the environmental community are sensitive to Hurley’s plight, even if they’re wary of the RGGI fund being milked dry. Stiles of Wetlands Watch tells me: “We are quietly working with VDEM and FEMA to figure out if there are some options – it is absurd to say that a rain-caused landslide is not covered but a rain-caused MUDSLIDE is? What’s the deal – someone from FEMA is looking at the % of rocks and dry soil? I fully agree with Morefield’s anger at this – especially after Grundy having to wait decades for the Army Corps of Engineers money that showed up in 2020, some forty years after the flood?” He also makes the case that the state should stay in RGGI and that rural localities in the western part of the state would benefit most from that: “The hope is that we can expand awareness and participation in the Fund to western localities and ‘even the playing field.’ This is NOT a coastal fund but a flood fund and most of our flood damage comes from riverine flooding. Given the funding source from RGGI we see this as a potential cash transfer program from NOVA and Hampton Roads to southside and SW – there are more ratepayers putting money into the RGGI pot in those regions than out your way.”

We’ll see whether Republican legislators in this part of Virginia are impressed by that argument — I doubt they will be — even as some are impressed by the size of the fund.

Still, the question remains: Will the state do anything about Hurley?

The General Assembly may convulse itself over whether Virginia should or should not be part of this program. Those will make for passionate debates, with warnings about climate change here, and warnings about cost there, and all the rest. I don’t mean to minimize any of this, because these are serious questions. But so is this: How can a state that has the richest county in the country tolerate a situation where people in one of its poorest counties escape with their lives while their homes are destroyed and then not do anything about it? 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.