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Feds Open Probe into Brooklyn Fossil Fuel Plans Amid Environmental Racism Accusations

October 27, 2021 Samantha Maldonado, THE CITY
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Federal officials are launching a civil rights investigation into fossil fuel projects in Brooklyn, where construction of a natural gas pipeline has sparked accusations of environmental racism.

The Environmental Protection Agency will examine whether the state Department of Environmental Conservation violated federal laws when it did not consider the impact of National Grid’s North Brooklyn Pipeline in an environmental review of related plans to upgrade the utility’s Greenpoint hub, according to a letter obtained by THE CITY.

At the heart of the issue: National Grid’s proposal to upgrade its facility to add two new vaporizers to gassify low-temperature combustible liquefied natural gas, or LNG. National Grid also plans to extend the pipeline to that facility, carrying gas for processing and storage.

Lawyers representing multiple Brooklyn community groups filed a complaint in August with the U.S. Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and Department of Transportation.

The complaint alleges that the location and operation of the pipeline and related projects discriminate against communities of color along the nearly seven-mile route in violation of federal and state environmental and civil rights laws.

“We’ve been saying all along that this [pipeline] project disproportionately impacts communities of color, but now we have a federal agency that is going to investigate, legally, how this project does that,” said Britney Wilson, a lawyer and director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at the New York Law School. “This is a great first step, and it’s really important that this racial-specific analysis and investigation be done.”

A National Grid Depot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, March 1, 2021.
National Grid’s depot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

According to the letter, the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office will look into the matter — focusing specifically on the DEC’s role.

Jeff Wernick, a DEC spokesperson, said the state agency subjects all environmental permit applications to “a transparent and rigorous review process that encourages public input at every step” — keeping in line with federal and state public health and environmental standards.

Karen Young, a National Grid spokesperson, said the project is “fully compliant with all applicable laws and regulations.”

“We trust that EPA will reach this conclusion following its investigation and dismiss the complaint,” she added.

Civil Rights Act Eyed

The feds will examine whether the state discriminated “on the basis of race and national origin” when DEC found that National Grid’s plans to expand its liquefied natural gas facility in Greenpoint would not have a negative environmental impact, according to a letter the EPA sent Thursday to lawyers representing the community groups.

The lawyers had challenged the DEC’s finding, noting that the agency’s environmental review did not take into account the pipeline, which they argue is a related and interdependent part of the overall facility expansion.

So far, the gas pipeline is operational from Brownsville to East Williamsburg. A final phase to Greenpoint is on tap, pending further review.

The DEC’s failure to assess the pipeline’s impact on communities by excluding it from the environmental review, the lawyers argued, amounted to a dereliction of the agency’s duty to protect communities of color as required by civil rights laws.

National Grid natural gas pipeline construction
National Grid installs a natural gas pipeline up Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn, Feb. 13, 2020.  Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

But DEC says it has not received an application for the pipeline, and it has not approved or denied any permits for the facility expansion at this point.

The EPA will also examine whether DEC is in compliance with nondiscrimination requirements to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities and who speak languages other than English.

That stems from the complaint’s allegation that many community members did not know about the pipeline until construction was underway. The DEC hosted three hearings on the proposed Greenpoint facility expansion as part of the final stage of the pipeline, but did not hold others about the route elsewhere, the DEC confirmed. The complaint argues the agency should have done so, so that New Yorkers potentially affected by the pipeline could have weighed in.

“I’m really excited to finally get some more information about what happened,” Wilson said.

A Year of Protests

The civil rights complaint asked the feds to investigate not only the DEC, but the state Department of Public Service and National Grid. The complaint alleged the company misled the public about the nature of the pipeline project and that the DPS improperly approved it.

The Department of Public Service has disputed misleading residents. The EPA says it can’t investigate DPS and National Grid because the entities don’t receive money from the agency and therefore don’t fall under its jurisdiction.

But the federal Department of Justice, Department of Transportation and Department of Energy could still take up investigations into DPS and National Grid, according to the EPA’s letter.

National Grid says the pipeline project is necessary to ensure its customers have access to gas for cooking, heat and hot water. Construction on the pipeline, which began in May 2017, remains unfinished.

Brooklyn residents have been protesting the pipeline for more than a year, saying the project runs counter to state and city climate goals to decrease reliance on fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases when burned.

Residents and lawyers representing Brooklyn community groups call for investigations into the Metropolitan Reliability Infrastructure project, a gas pipeline that’s snaking through Brownsville, Ocean Hill, Bushwick and East Williamsburg.
Brooklyn residents have been protesting the pipeline and more for over a year. Photo by Samantha Maldonado/THE CITY
Opponents contend the pipeline will result in prolonged dependence on gas, leading to unnecessary environmental and health-related harms that will disproportionately fall on communities already vulnerable to high rates of pollution.

The state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act mandates a 85% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and reductions in carbon — meaning the state will have to electrify and largely have to come off gas to mitigate climate change.

As part of a spate of initiatives to decarbonize the construction industry — including Local Law 97, which imposes emissions caps on buildings starting in 2024 — Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to ban gas hook-ups in new buildings by 2030. The administration is negotiating a bill with the City Council that would achieve that goal, potentially sooner.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, de Blasio’s likely successor, has indicated he supports the decarbonization efforts, but has questioned the feasibility of those deadlines and doesn’t want to penalize building owners for noncompliance.

Meanwhile, foes of the liquefied natural gas depot have been pushing back against National Grid’s plans to expand it and possibly truck LNG to the site — activities the utility also says are necessary for energy reliability.

Lawyers representing local North Brooklyn community groups in September filed a motion in state Appellate Court to stop trucking-related construction on the site until an environmental review of the impacts is complete.

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