An intra-governmental legal battle is brewing in Brooklyn, as the feds are investigating a possible civil rights violation after the state Department of Environmental Conservation said a controversial natural gas plant will not have negative environmental impacts.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the probe after several local organizations filed a civil rights complaint against DEC, the state Department of Public Service (DPS), and National Grid in August, alleging that all three entities had violated Title IV of the federal civil rights act.
The primary focus of the complaint was the Metropolitan Natural Gas Reliability Project, or the North Brooklyn Pipeline — a mostly-completed seven-mile pipeline that runs primarily through majority-minority neighborhoods from Brownsville to Greenpoint. At the end of the pipeline is the Greenpoint Energy Center, home of another ongoing battle between National Grid and the surrounding community as the company endeavors to build two new Liquified Natural Gas vaporizers, and the center of EPA’s investigation.
Earlier this year, DEC issued a “negative declaration” for National Grid’s application for air permits to expand the facility, saying the project “will not have a significant impact on the environment.”
The complaint called DEC’s ruling “legally flawed,” and said that the department had “[refused] to assess the impact of the very pipeline that fed that facility, despite taking the opposite position on a different pipeline planned in a predominantly white community, and despite the established literature on the serious adverse health consequences of pipelines for the surrounding community.”
In a letter addressed to Britney R. Wilson of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at the New York School of Law and Anjana Malhotra of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, who represented the groups filing the complaint, the EPA said they will investigate whether DEC “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin,” in the negative declaration.
EPA is also investigating whether the DEC’s public participation process is consistent with Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, which the civil complaint said they violated, and “other federal civil rights law,” and whether or not the department is complying with “general nondiscrimination obligations” required by all recipients of EPA funding, the agency said, including ensuring “meaningful access,” to DEC services and programs is available to people with disabilities and people who do not speak or read English fluently.
Neighbors and activists have said they were not informed about National Grid’s plan to build the pipeline through streets and neighborhoods, and some claim they only found out about the pipeline last year — though construction started in Brownsville in 2017.
“The initiation of an investigation of the issues above is not a decision on the merits,” the letter states. “ECRCO (External Civil Rights Compliance Office) is a neutral fact finder and will begin its process to gather the relevant information, discuss the matter further with you and NY DEC, and determine next steps utilizing ECRCO’s internal procedures.”
In a statement, DEC said they have not yet approved or issued any permits for the LNG expansion and that the air permits, if granted, are only for the LNG facility, not the pipeline.
“The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation subjects all applications for environmental permits to a transparent and rigorous review process that encourages public input at every step and includes review of all public comments,” a spokesperson said via email. “DEC is working cooperatively with U.S. EPA to provide all requested information and documents to resolve this investigation.”
DEC will have the opportunity to answer the letter by “responding to, rebutting, or denying the issues that have been accepted for investigation,” within 30 days.
National Grid, which has faced ongoing criticism from activists and environmentalists since last year, is pursuing permits to install new tanks at the Greenpoint facility and continuing work on the North Brooklyn Pipeline, though the last phase of construction has been paused as part of the rate-hike case approved by the PSC in August.
“Contrary to the allegations made in the complaint, all work on the Metropolitan Reliability Project and the Greenpoint Energy Center has been and continues to be conducted in accordance with all required permits and approvals, and is fully compliant with all applicable laws and regulations,” said National Grid representative Karen Young via email. “We trust that EPA will reach this conclusion following its investigation and dismiss the complaint.”
Dozens of state elected officials signed a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul last month asking her to review and reconsider the case.
“DEC’s illegal segmentation and failure to review the environmental harms of the Pipeline and LNG facility together is in stark contrast to state law and the position it has taken in white communities, where it has required that an environmental review of pipelines and the gas and power plants they connect to as one project before they can go forward,” Malhotra said in a release. “National Grid has always made clear that this pipeline was designed to massively increase the amount of gas that the Greenpoint LNG facility stores, produces, and sells, and DEC’s failure to consider these projects together means that the environmental harms of the pipeline have gone unchecked. Because this pipeline runs through Black and Brown neighborhoods, they believed they could get away with skirting the law.”
“The decision by the EPA to investigate DEC is a big victory for residents, and we will continue to do everything possible to hold state regulators accountable,” Malhotra continued.
The EPA is only pursuing the complaint against DEC because they provide the department with federal funds, and have jurisdiction over it. The agency is coordinating with the federal departments for transportation, justice, and energy to assess the complaints against DPS and National Grid.