A New York Neighborhood With a Toxic Past Is Fighting for a Greener Future
Greenpoint was once an industrial dumping ground. Now, its residents are pushing back against a controversial fracked-gas project that could have explosive consequences.
Unless a water main bursts, flooding the street, or a manhole unexpectedly explodes, it’s easy to forget the subterranean metropolis whirring away below the towering skyscrapers and densely populated neighborhoods of New York City.
There’s a maze of subway lines, long-forgotten tunnels, and aging sewers, along with thousands of miles of pipes and cables, tangled together like manmade roots supplying power, water, gas, and wifi to an urban forest above.
It’s surprising, then, that an incomplete seven-mile pipeline, running from Brownsville to Greenpoint, could spur thousands of Brooklyn residents to suddenly think about what’s under their feet, but that’s exactly what National Grid’s controversial Metropolitan Natural Gas Reliability Project has done.
Since May 2017, the utility, which has millions of customers across the Northeast, has been gradually installing a pipeline to carry fracked gas, unseen, to the Greenpoint Energy Center, a liquified natural gas (LNG) storage facility on the banks of Brooklyn’s heavily polluted Newtown Creek.
The utility has also applied for a permit to expand its operations on the 117-acre site by adding millions of dollars’ worth of new equipment, and the capacity to truck volatile compressed natural gas (CNG) to and from the facility.
Natural gas is used for cooking and heating in about half of all homes across the United States. National Grid supplies it to Staten Island, Brooklyn, and large sections of Long Island and Queens via a network of pipelines from Pennsylvania. Another utility, Con Edison, which also supplies the city’s electricity, is responsible for the rest.
A coalition of furious residents, grassroots environmental groups, and legal experts are fighting what has been dubbed the North Brooklyn pipeline, along with the Greenpoint expansion, arguing the two are linked and will prolong the city’s fossil-fuel dependence, while further delaying the increasingly urgent transition to renewable energy.
It’s expensive for ratepayers, and, some activists fear, could even be explosive. Literally.
An Urban Pipeline
“This is a massive fossil-fuel project,” says Ruhan Nagra, a lawyer at University Network for Human Rights. The organization is among a dozen or so backing a campaign calling on New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to reject the permit bid, and do a holistic environmental-impact review.
National Grid denies it’s building new fossil-fuel infrastructure in North Brooklyn, despite installing more than five miles of pipeline under Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and Williamsburg since May 2017. The final phase of the project will add another two miles of pipeline under residential streets to connect with the Greenpoint facility.
“National Grid is seeking to do three different things that are actually one large project,” Nagra explains. Taking a segmented approach to environmental approvals, she says, is a way to skirt a now permanent statewide fracking ban and the city’s clean-energy targets.
The utility is also seeking a variance from the New York Fire Department to truck LNG through the same neighborhoods, which are home to many low-income and minority communities.
“You’re talking about trucking a highly explosive, volatile material that can cause asphyxiation and freezing burns within a mile radius, if there is an accident,” Nagra says. “And doing that in a highly developed, urban area like New York City. It’s totally crazy.”
Still, National Grid insists the project is safe and intended only to bolster the existing system and increase its capacity at times of peak demand, during the winter. “It’s a system integrity project,” a National Grid spokesperson said in a statement.
Living “Under Siege”
Greenpoint residents already live with the consequences of decades of unchecked industrial pollution. Newtown Creek, the murky waterway that runs along the neighborhood’s north-west edge, splitting Brooklyn from Queens, was once known for its clear waters and bountiful seafood and shellfish. It’s now a federal Superfund site, earmarked for clean-up by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
For more than a century, the banks of the creek were packed with oil refineries and factories, which spewed toxic waste and stinking fumes. Dead fish and eels floated on the surface of the water, amid garbage and raw sewage. In 1979, a glob of millions of gallons of oil — described as like “black mayonnaise” — was found to have seeped under the neighborhood. The oil spill remains one of the worst environmental catastrophes in US history.
Greenpoint Energy Center sits along the shores of Newtown Creek, a sprawling site of gravel and bare soil, much of which is strewn with pieces of rusting pipe. It’s on the industrial outskirts of the neighborhood, surrounded by a moss-colored chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire.
There are a couple of disused, sky-blue sheds, and two enormous white LNG storage tanks, which look like grounded hot-air balloons from the road. Next door to the site is a Little League field.
Katherine Thompson, a mother of three who moved to Greenpoint in 1996, remembers her son playing baseball there as a child. Back then, children hit home runs in the shadow of the Maspeth Holders, a pair of 400-foot-high natural-gas storage tanks, which were demolished in spectacular fashion two decades ago.
“It was such a weird thing to be there playing this all-American game,” she says. “You imagine being out in the suburbs in a nice, green Little League field, but there you are in the middle of this industrial wasteland.”
Thompson has always been an active community member, running an inclusive youth soccer league and advocating for better public parks. She became focused on fighting climate change after losing her job as a shoe designer in Manhattan’s Garment District in 2019. Thompson joined the local chapter of the Extinction Rebellion, a global climate-action movement known for outlandish stunts, and was arrested that October during a protest on Wall Street, covered in fake blood.
She turned her attention to the North Brooklyn pipeline, which National Grid announced with little fanfare at a community board meeting a year and a half ago. The utility had already begun digging in East Williamsburg.
“It felt like, wow, if you can fight fossil-fuel infrastructure in Brooklyn, New York, then that could effect change and be a model for other cities,” Thompson says.
“At that point, there were these huge trenches in the street, and it was obvious something was happening. Whole long streets were being shut down.”
Another long-time Greenpoint resident, community board member Trina McKeever, said it felt like the neighborhood was “under siege”. “There had been no community outreach, no anything,” she says. “It was just, ‘Okay, we’re here, we’re doing it, and it’s going to be really good for you’.”
The Big Picture
While some residents are frustrated by the short-term impacts of the pipeline, such as construction blocking small businesses, and fear potential trucking accidents, many also say their overarching concern has always been climate change.
The natural-gas industry is a major source of methane leaks — from extraction, to processing, to transportation. Roughly a third of the United States’ emissions of the potent greenhouse gas comes from the energy industry, and even distribution pipes leak methane.
“If you put a methane molecule out there today, in the first 20 years it will be about 80 times more powerful than a carbon-dioxide molecule,” says Suzanne Mattei, an energy policy analyst at The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) with three decades’ experience.
Mattei is a lawyer, trained at Yale Law School, and former regional director of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). She says five years ago natural gas was still considered a viable “bridge” fuel to renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectricity. That was before the risks of methane were properly understood, though.
Now, Mattei says, the science, the market, and public sentiment have shifted towards more nimble, cleaner technology. In January, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled a citywide ban on fossil-fuel connections in new buildings by 2030, and the Biden administration has already set an ambitious zero-carbon-emissions target for 2035, pledging trillions of dollars to get there.
“You’re seeing more and more utilities jump straight from coal, or an antiquated oil plant, to renewables, and skipping natural gas,” says Mattei.
“There may be times when you need to repair something, but in terms of building new things? I would think that an extremely close scrutiny of that should occur, because that is just not the way the energy world is moving now.”
In the early 2000s, Greenpoint residents organized to stop a power plant being built on the banks of the East River; they have fought tirelessly for decades for waterfront public parks.
Still, under its current leadership, DEC confirmed it is reviewing National Grid’s permit application, and the agency will hold a virtual public hearing on March 10 so residents can voice their concerns. Thousands of public comments have been submitted since the permit application was lodged.
Sane Energy Project, a Brooklyn-based environmental organization, has been pressuring both city and state agencies to halt the project, and helping residents organize over Zoom.
“I think it’s going as well as it can to be organizing against a giant fracked-gas storage facility during a pandemic,” says activist Lee Ziesche, who works for Sane Energy Project.
On March 3, a socially distanced caravan of cars, bikes, and skateboards rolled through downtown Brooklyn — soundtracked by Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and armed with cardboard signs painted with flames — to hand-deliver a letter to the New York Fire Department’s headquarters, asking the agency to take action.
“We want the Fire Department to know that this is something the public cares about,” says Ziesche. “The big pipelines are getting the attention, but it’s the smaller ones that add up. This is the climate fight here in New York City.”