Environmental legal eagles have filed a federal complaint against National Grid, charging that the British-based utility company violated the Civil Rights Act by constructing a seven-mile natural gas pipeline through northern Brooklyn.
According to the organizations behind the legal maneuver, National Grid failed to adhere to federal and state environmental and pipeline safety laws throughout construction of the pipeline, which runs through predominantly-minority neighborhoods — and thus it is “racially discriminatory and has caused unjustified, disproportionate adverse impacts on the basis of race and ethnicity,” according to the complaint.
“Despite being in the first phase of the pipeline’s construction, Brownsville and Ocean Hill were the last to find out about it, in the summer of 2020,” said Britney Wilson, director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic. “Despite the requirements of state and federal laws, there were no notices; no public hearings; no public education campaigns on the risks associated with pipelines. Instead, the community did that.”
Specifically, the groups — including Brownsville Green Justice and the Indigenous Kinship collective — say that the so-called “Metropolitan Natural Gas Reliability Project” violates Title IV of the 1964 landmark Civil Rights law, which prohibits programs that receive federal funding from withholding benefits or services based on “race, color, or national origin.”
The department of justice quotes John F. Kennedy in its description of the law, saying “Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion with encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial discrimination.”
In a statement, National Grid said construction on the pipeline “was conducted with the required permits and approvals in place, and was fully compliant with all laws, rules and regulations.”
Neighbors and activists have been protesting the pipeline since last year, concerned about the health and environmental impacts it will have on the largely Black and brown neighborhoods it winds through.
The coalition who filed the complaint hope to start a federal investigation and stop gas from flowing entirely.
Maritza Henriques, a Brooklyn native who has lived in Williamsburg since 2017, said they noticed construction through their neighborhood in early 2020 — just before the city entered its first lockdown.
“People who are familiar with Williamsburg might know that it is an incredibly polarized community, socio-economically and racially,” Henriques said. “I took it upon myself to try and advocate for knowledge of this pipeline within the schools in north Brooklyn, and without any surprise, I realized that a lot of the affluent white residents had no idea that this pipeline was even built, nor did they have any knowledge of any construction because it was not happening on their streets.”
The complaint, sent to the federal Department of Justice and the EPA, as well as other federal offices, names the state’s department of environmental conservation and department of public service, slamming the agencies for deciding not to assess environmental impacts of the pipeline, and for granting National Grid a rate hike earlier this month.
Complainants also voiced concerns about more pressing physical dangers presented by the pipeline, citing longtime concerns over the densely-populated evacuation zone and a lack of pressure testing to check existing sections of pipeline for gas leaks.
National Grid spent more than $17 million repairing over 2,000 gas leaks in New York City, according to their 2020 leak repair report — including 1,887 Type 1 leaks, which present “a potentially hazardous condition to the public or buildings,” and require immediate attention, according to the state department of service.
Fabian Rogers, a Brownsville resident, and a member of Brownsville Green Justice, said he learned about the pipeline in September 2020 through friends involved in other advocacy work.
Construction started in Brownsville in 2017, but Rogers said he — and most people in the neighborhood — assumed it was routine roadwork. Finding a degree of transparency with large corporations like National Grid is challenging, he said, and requires residents to stay vigilant.
“They have to be advocates for themselves about things they never asked for in their own communities,” he said. “Nobody asked for more oil, nobody asked for more gas. You feel as though we’re a basket to carry the burdens of environmental harm that no one ever asked for.”
Henriques, meanwhile, has been pushing for schools in north Brooklyn to start educating students and families about the pipeline, even becoming the co-president of a Williamsburg parent-teacher association after learning the pipeline passes right through the street they live on with their son.
“I light a match under the water that comes from my sink before I drink water with my child,” Henriques said. “I’m investing a ton of money that I don’t necessarily have on water filtration systems for my home. And I’m frankly exhausted from having to do all this additional advocacy on top of being a single parent that’s living paycheck to paycheck.”
“Which is essentially the goal, right? Like these are the areas of least resistance because we are people who are in survival mode,” they said. “We deserve to live with dignity and respect.”