On the rocky banks of Newtown Creek on Thursday, local environmental activists hauled out five large black contractor bags worth of trash – a shoe, beer cans, masks and lots of plastic. They didn’t gather in Maspeth to remedy a superfund site soiled with decades worth of dumping, but rather to call upon Gov. Kathy Hochul to put pressure on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to reject a new permit for National Grid, which runs the Greenpoint Energy Facility located just across the creek.
The London-based utility provider wants to expand the facility’s capacity to convert liquid fuel to natural gas, which the ralliers characterize as a step in the wrong direction and a violation of environmental justice laws.
Thursday morning, local environmental groups sent a petition with 11,800 names to Hochul, a regional DEC office and its commissioner, Basil Seggos, to vote no on the decision expected February 7th. They were joined by U.S. Congresswomen Nydia Velazquez and Carolyn Maloney along with New York City Councilmembers Sandy Nurse and Lincoln Restler.
The area has historically been an industrial dumping ground, and the neighborhood is home to a wastewater treatment plant, a Department of Sanitation storage yard, an oil refinery, fuel suppliers, asphalt and concrete manufacturers, a recycling center — and the Greenpoint Energy Center, which has been providing natural gas for over 50 years.
National Grid plans to add two liquid natural gas (LNG) vaporizers to the facility’s existing collection of six. LNG vaporizers are essentially big boilers that transform liquid fossil fuels, mostly methane, into a gas that can be delivered to homes for heat and cooking. As such, they are used only during peak demand such as in winter for heating homes.
The British multinational company said in an interview with WNYC/Gothamist these additional units are necessary to meet the anticipated higher energy demands forecasted for the future.
“Prove it,” said Anthony Ingraffea, the civil engineering professor at Cornell University who prepared an environmental assessment on behalf of Sane Energy, a renewables advocacy group, to respond to National Grid’s project
Sane Energy’s environmental experts estimated that Greenpoint Energy Center only used 1% of its total vaporizer capacity during the winter of 2019-2020, based on the volume of regasified LNG injected into the system for customers and the total storage capacity provided by the energy provider. The year before that was 10%.
According to the records of the public hearing on October 21st, National Grid stated that they only use the vaporizers two to 14 days out of the whole year in the past five-to-six years and project that to be consistent in the future.
“So show us the data,” Ingraffea said. “We’re in the middle of an energy transition and moving away from fossil fuels for all uses and increasing the use of renewables.”
Local residents and activists voiced concerns about the environmental impact on their neighborhoods. Ingraffea said LNG vaporizers tend to leak, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Last July, Sane Energy and Cooper Park Houses Residents Council, a NYCHA development project located near Greenpoint Energy Center, filed a lawsuit to block the construction of the new infrastructure.
According to a 2017 report from World Bank Group, storage, transfer and transport of liquid natural gas poses a risk of fire and explosion due to the flammable quality of its boil-off gas, methane. These leaks can happen from tanks, pipes, hoses – basically anything that holds liquid natural gas. Nearly 50 years ago, an explosion at a liquid natural gas facility in Staten Island killed 40 workers. The chemicals are so volatile that in the last 20 years, there have been nearly 6,000 LNG jobsite accidents associated with pipelines that have totaled nearly $11 billion in damage and nearly 2,000 injuries and fatalities, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
They have been unwilling to come to the table for a fair and equitable dialogue on achievable solutions on decarbonization.
A couple of blocks from the power plant, lifelong resident Elisha Fye, 68, calls the facility a blight on his community. He is the vice president of the council that represents the 701 apartments at Cooper Park Houses, which he estimates has as many as 4,000 residents.
“The air was thick at certain times especially in the summer, and I could see the fumes coming out like fire and the smell was pungent,” Fye said. “As a kid, seeing the smokestacks on the plants, I thought it was something normal; I didn’t know it was harmful.”
According to the World Bank report, LNG regasification typically releases pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, which can worsen asthma after prolonged exposure. The process also produces ozone, carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless toxic gas, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, a pungent gas that can cause respiratory problems.
In a written statement to WNYC/Gothamist, National Grid said their current emission levels are “well below existing and future caps” of annual NOx emissions, 47.4 and 24.9 tons, respectively.
And as stated at the October 21st public hearing, the natural gas provider claimed there would be a reduction of 101 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year due to increased efficiency of the new vaporizers that will be running alongside the older existing ones. They based these assertions on their own assessment but did not provide details on how they arrived at the carbon number when pressed.
“The advocates who oppose our projects do not speak for everyone – and advance extreme views with little substance on how to deliver energy to existing customers in a safe, reliable and affordable manner,” Karen Young, spokesperson for National Grid, said in an email. “They have been unwilling to come to the table for a fair and equitable dialogue on achievable solutions on decarbonization.”
During a four-hour public information session in October, concerned residents and activists asked 60 questions. Most of the questions pertaining to emissions and waste were answered by National Grid with “this question is outside the scope of the Vaporizer 13/14 Project.”
Activists and their experts argue that this project is a violation of environmental law. According to the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), New York State requires greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced across all industries by 40% by 2030 and less than 85% by 2050. Opponents of the project say that increasing the infrastructure of a fossil-fueling burning plant located in a densely populated area goes against these state mandates.
Greenpoint itself, its residents argue, also falls under the protection of city environmental justice legislation. Local Laws 60 and 64 are meant to shield neighborhoods which have been burdened with the lion’s share of negative environmental impacts from further projects that would worsen their quality of life. In the area surrounding the Greenpoint Energy Center, more than half of the residents, predominantly Black or Latinx, live at or below the poverty line.
“Our land is contaminated,” said Fye, a double transplant patient. “The garbage comes through here – there are so many plants here. It’s horrible to think a lot of people, including myself, my friends, my family, live in this and have really bad health.”