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Feds Launch a Second Civil Rights Investigation Into Brooklyn Gas Pipeline

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.
Residents and lawyers representing Brooklyn community groups call for investigations into the pipeline project.
Samantha Maldonado/THE CITY

A second federal agency is kicking off a civil rights probe into the approval of part of a natural gas pipeline snaking through Brooklyn.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will investigate whether the state Department of Public Service violated of federal discrimination laws when the Public Service Commission gave thumbs up to National Grid’s North Brooklyn Pipeline in August, according to a letter from DOT sent Friday and obtained by THE CITY.

The investigation is the second of its kind in response to a complaint filed in August by lawyers on behalf of several Brooklyn community groups. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is examining the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s actions in a related probe announced in October.

“We’re really glad the DOT is investigating because it’s a terrible precedent and really harmful for these communities, and it’s just kind of another way that state agencies skirt the law to allow infrastructure to be built in communities of color without adequate protection,” said Anjana Malhotra, a lawyer at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, who filed the complaint.

She added the results of the probe could snag the last phase of construction of the pipeline, which is set to stretch from Brownsville to Greenpoint.

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

The complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and Department of Transportation alleged the location and operation of the pipeline and related projects discriminate against communities of color that live along the nearly seven-mile route.

The complaint, which charges violations of federal and state environmental and civil rights laws, alleged National Grid misled the public about the nature of the pipeline project — and that the Public Service Commission, as part of the Department of Public Service, improperly approved it.

“The PSC makes its decisions based on a robust factual record and ensures that all interested stakeholders have an equal opportunity to add to that record,” said James Denn, spokesperson for the both state entities.

‘Disparate Impact’

DOT is looking into whether the state violated federal laws when the PSC approved the expansion of the pipeline “without analyzing the adverse disparate impact of the pipeline on the African-American and Latinx New Yorkers,” according to the letter.

DOT will also examine whether the state is in compliance with nondiscrimination requirements in place to make sure people with disabilities and who speak languages other than English can engage in the state review process.

The line of inquiry is in response to the complaint’s allegation that community members were not aware of National Grid’s plans for the pipeline until 2020, after construction had begun.

The rate hike the PSC approved in August for National Grid customers in New York City and Long Island would in part pay for the first four phases of the pipeline — now operational from Brownsville to East Williamsburg — as well as infrastructure upgrades designed to ensure energy reliability and efficiency, as well reduce energy demand.

As part of that decision, the PSC is requiring a review showing the fifth phase — to the Greenpoint hub — is necessary for reliability before approval. The first four phases had been okayed by the city before the PSC approved cost recovery from ratepayers.

Upon the August decision, Department of Public Service staff determined the projects the rate hike covered were in line with the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act — which mandates reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — and would not disproportionately burden disadvantaged communities.

In the complaint, the groups charged that new building-gas infrastructure ran afoul of the state law and that officials did not fully review the pipeline’s burdens on nearby communities. The complaint also alleged the Department of Public Service ignored National Grid’s “failure to comply with pipeline safety laws.”

Two Years of Protest

National Grid maintains that all work on the pipeline and its Greenpoint facility has been in compliance with all applicable regulations and laws.

“We are confident any investigation will confirm these projects complied with all applicable laws,” said Karen Young, a spokesperson for National Grid.

Whatever comes of the investigation could impact what happens with how the already-operating phases of the pipeline are paid for and the fate of the fifth phase, according to Malhotra. She said that if the approval was found to be discriminatory, it could be considered illegal and rescinded.

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

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

They say 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.

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