How A Utility Giant Tried (and Failed) to Build a Pipeline Under Brooklyn

Brooklyn residents didn’t learn about the new pipeline project from National Grid until two years into its construction. They were able to stop it anyways.

Sara Van Horn

Brooklyn residents pause National Grid’s construction of the Metropolitan Reliability Infrastructure Project, aka the North Brooklyn Pipeline, on Dec. 10, 2020. ERIK MCGREGOR/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

NEW YORK — In February 2016, small advertisements appeared in the back pages of a Brooklyn newspaper notifying the public of a coming rate hike in energy bills — to the tune of $245 million over a year-long period. Crammed beneath movie listings and accompanied by a table of decimals, small print and legal jargon, the ads said nothing about how British utility giant National Grid would use these millions. 

By November 2019, when Brooklyn residents learned the hike would pay for seven miles of a new fracked gas transmission pipeline beneath their neighborhoods, construction was two years along; large portions of the Metropolitan Reliability Infrastructure Project had been quietly laid under the streets from Brownsville to East Williamsburg. Activists dubbed it the North Brooklyn Pipeline because it would funnel Pennsylvanian fracked gas beneath five densely populated Brooklyn neighborhoods.

According to New York state law, posting an ad in a local newspaper for four straight weeks fulfills public notice requirements for utility rate hikes. In this case, however, Ruhan Nagra — director of the Environmental Justice Clinic at the University of Utah — thinks the notice was legally insufficient. Nagra cites a 2003 New York environmental justice policy that requires new infrastructure projects include public participation if they might impact minority or low-income populations.” In this case, Nagra says, local communities had no idea about it until organizers alerted them.

National Grid spokesman Alexander Starr disagrees.

National Grid complied with all laws, rules and regulation to which it was subject,” he wrote in an email to In These Times. The company deployed extraordinary public outreach and community relations activities to keep residents and businesses informed.”

We just didn’t know that this was happening,” says Kier Blake, co-founder of the environmental justice nonprofit Start:Empowerment and an organizer along the pipeline route. National Grid will say that they did alert the community — in a tiny part of the newspaper that no one reads.”

Despite a delayed start to resistance efforts,” as another organizer puts it, the pipeline will go no further. For the past three years, a group of activists and community organizations — known as the No North Brooklyn Pipeline Alliance— have led a massive and vibrant campaign against National Grid. The group has used a wide range of tactics, from legal action to bike protests. At least 12 activists were arrested for blockades that delayed construction, and hundreds of community members joined a gas bill strike by refusing to pay their full bills.

According to the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, the “blast zone” of the pipeline includes 81 daycare facilities, 55 public schools, nine healthcare centers, three nursing homes and the houses of nearly 153,000 people.

In April, National Grid halted construction and withdrew its permit application to expand its liquified natural gas storage facility in Greenpoint, the pipeline’s planned end.

The company wanted to build two new vaporizers — machines that convert liquified natural gas to the form burned in stoves and heaters — and build the new pipeline to transport more gas away from the expanded facility. (The four completed sections of the pipeline, which do not distribute gas directly to households, have been connected to the existing Greenpoint facility via a smaller, older pipeline.) According to National Grid, the project would have guaranteed a more reliable energy source for New Yorkers during extremely cold weather.

Brooklyn activists, however, point out that National Grid barely uses its current vaporizers. The company itself admitted to an independent consulting firm, PA Consulting, that most of the vaporization that takes place at Greenpoint only requires a fraction of the total vaporization capability of the plant.”

Ultimately, city officials shared activists’ skepticism. After PA Consulting found no need for the proposed vaporizers, the city’s Public Service Commission denied National Grid’s attempt to finance the $70 million project through another rate hike. One month later, National Grid withdrew its request.

Critics of the project argue it would further the city’s dependence on fossil fuels and fracking and also cite the threat of a gas leak or explosion. According to the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, the blast zone” of the pipeline includes 81 daycare facilities, 55 public schools, nine healthcare centers, three nursing homes and the houses of nearly 153,000 people. For Blake, these risks are not hypothetical: Our homes and families will be directly affected not if but when the pipeline leaks.” The country’s 3 million miles of pipelines suffer hundreds of leaks annually, according to ProPublica.

“Our homes and families will be directly affected not if but when the pipeline leaks.”

The pipeline route mostly spares whiter, wealthier areas by cutting through predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods with a legacy of environmental justice issues. In 2021, residents of the majority-Black Brownsville neighborhood filed a complaint against National Grid and New York State, arguing the pipeline violates the Civil Rights Act. Brownsville already has the highest rate of adult asthma in New York City, with 14.2 cases per 100 adults. Greenpoint is the site of one of largest oil spills in U.S. history, making nearby Newtown Creek one of the most polluted waterways in the country.

For advocates like Meagan Burton, senior attorney at Earthjustice, which provided legal support to the No North Brooklyn Pipeline Alliance, this toxic legacy makes the victory more important. Burton puts it this way: It’s an incredible win for folks on the ground that actually have to live next to this pipeline and suffer all of the environmental harms.”

Sara Van Horn is a writer from Brooklyn and a former editorial intern at In These Times. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, Bookforum, and elsewhere.

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