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Rep. Shalala Discusses Climate Change, Sea Level Rise At Palmetto Bay Town Hall

Sam Turken
U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala held a town hall on climate change Wednesday evening in Palmetto Bay.

First-term U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala says she is working to address climate change in South Florida by pushing for Everglades restoration, carbon fees and federal infrastructure improvements.

During an hour-long town hall Wednesday evening at the Palmetto Bay Municipal Center, Shalala recapped her first three and half months as a new congresswoman from Florida’s 27th Congressional District. While she briefly discussed healthcare costs and conditions at immigrant detention centers, she mainly focused on climate change, saying people have to “think bigger than we’ve ever thought before” to curb carbon emissions.

“The debate is going to be whether we can continue to take incremental steps or whether we need to take a giant step,” she told more than 40 attendees at the gathering. “Everybody is warning us now that we’re going to have to suck it up and take a giant step.”

Shalala stopped short of fully supporting the Green New Deal, a sweeping, disputed proposal by some liberal Democrats to cut emissions to net zero by 2030. Shalala said the package is “full of good” ideas, but added that simple straightforward action that can build consensus is also necessary.

The town hall marked an effort by Shalala to connect with her constituents more than four months after winning the long-held Republican congressional seat that includes Miami Beach, Key Biscayne and parts of South Dade. Wednesday’s town hall was one of six she’s holding in her district before the end of May. During another gathering on Monday in Miami Beach, she discussed guns and anti-Semitism.

Shalala told attendees on Wednesday about her experiences so far in Congress. She noted that she has easy access to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has discussed housing in South Florida with U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson and plans to do the same for transporation with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

"The federal government ought not to dictate to South Florida what it can spend infrastructure money on because we have special needs related to sea level rise" - Donna Shalala

During the discussion on climate change, Shalala criticized the Trump administration for cutting funding for Everglades restoration in his recently-released federal budget proposal. The budget provides for less than $70 million in funding instead of the $200 million that Florida has requested. Shalala said she is working with Republican Congress members from the state to secure necessary funding for the restoration project.

The congresswoman also noted that she supports a refundable tax on the use of carbon. But she has reservations about a bill under consideration that would impose the fee because it also pauses the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clear Air Act.

“I like the bill, but I’m very weary about suspending something like the Clean Air Act,” she said. “It may be that I’m going to tweak it a little bit.”

Shalala added that the passage of a federal infrastructure bill could be critical to hardening South Florida against sea level rise.

The House of Representatives has been discussing a potential bill to build new public works projects, and the Trump administration has said it wants an infrastructure package passed during the current Congress. Shalala said she’s told Pelosi the bill should give local communities authority to decide what types of infrastructure improvements to make.

“The federal government ought not to dictate to South Florida what it can spend infrastructure money on because we have special needs related to sea level rise. It’s important that it be very flexible,” she said.

Attendees said they would welcome federal infrastructure improvements to increase sea level rise resilience.

"As this sea level rises here, all these septic tanks are going to become ineffectual and all these people's sewage is going to go where" - Henry Clifford

Henry Clifford, who lives in Palmetto Bay, noted that the rising seas pose a threat to thousands of homes with septic tanks across Miami-Dade County. The tanks sit atop a layer of dirt which helps to naturally filtrate waste. But rising saltwater is now compromising the system. A Miami-Dade County study has found that by 2040, 64 percent of county septic tanks could have issues every year.

“As this sea level rises here, all these septic tanks are going to become ineffectual and all these people’s sewage is going to go where?” Clifford said.

He suggested connecting homes with septic tanks to Miami-Dade's sewer system. The county has said such a solution could cost $3.3 billion.

Leanne Tellam expressed similar concerns about the septic tanks. And although she said her house sits on higher ground than other homes, she fears sea level rise will prevent her from passing it down to her three children.

“Whatever you can do to help the point of building out the infrastructure in a way that helps us prepare—we’re having the conversation on a daily basis down here, and we need you to bring it back to Washington,” Tellam told Shalala.