AAt first glance, construction along the streets of Brooklyn seemed routine. “You wouldn’t think so,” said Fabian Rogers, a community organizer in Brownsville, a majority-black neighborhood where construction began in 2017.
It wasn’t until years later, in 2020, that he learned the upturned streets were giving way to a fractured gas pipeline. “It was just like a big slap in the face – to have [a pipeline] in my garden that I didn’t know existed,” he said.
Rogers and other residents have spent the past two years protesting National Grid’s 7-mile pipeline, which zigzags through predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, bypassing Brooklyn’s whiter and wealthier neighborhoods. Formerly known as the Metropolitan Reliability Project, the pipeline is often referred to as the North Brooklyn Pipeline. They blocked construction of the pipeline during protests and some stopped paying part of their utility bills, in an attempt to divert funds from the project.
Last summer, they went further, filing a lawsuit against the utility and the state that claims the pipeline resulted in racial discrimination, violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (Title VI prohibits federally funded entities from discriminating on the basis of race, gender, and other protected identities).
Historically, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been slow to act on these types of complaints, rarely finding evidence of discrimination. But under the Biden administration, the agency has pledged to change that. How the EPA responds to this challenge — in which Black, Indigenous and Brown-led community groups say a fractured gas pipeline represents a violation of their civil rights — will be a test of the agency’s ability. to keep that promise.
Shortly after the complaint was filed, two federal investigations were launched into New York state agencies. Lawyers behind the complaint hope it will lead to a full environmental review of the pipeline and associated methane gas storage and refining facility, which is awaiting an air permit. Ultimately, they hope the gas in the pipeline – which started operating in 2020 – is permanently off.
“It would be a real mistake if the state does not listen to the communities it is supposed to protect – who already have a history of fighting environmental damage and pollution,” says Britney Wilson, co-lawyer for the lawsuit and associate professor of law and director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at New York Law School.
The pipeline runs through the designated environmental justice areas of Brownsville, Ocean-Hill, Bushwick and East Williamsburg, neighborhoods long rife with toxic hazards due to a history of racist policies. Large swaths of these neighborhoods were historically demarcated, ineligible for federally guaranteed loans. All neighborhoods have some of the highest rates of asthma among adults and children in New York City, a legacy of its history of polluting industries and lack of public benefits. The pipeline has a terminal in Greenpoint, where one of the nation’s largest oil spills is still being remediated.
“National Grid has treated Brownsville like a backyard, but there’s a whole community here,” Rogers said. “People supported each other. People made it happen.
Responding to a request for comment, a National Grid spokesperson said the utility company has complied with all laws.
The EPA was created a little over 50 years ago. During this period, the agency made only one final finding of discrimination.
In 2017, the agency concluded that the licensing process for a power plant in Flint, Michigan, did indeed discriminate against African American residents. But it took more than 20 years for the EPA to get there; the lawsuit against the Genesee power plant was first filed in 1992.
the Center for Public Integrity found that the EPA dismissed or dismissed more than 90% of civil rights abuse allegations, from 1996 to 2013, while only 5% of complaints were resolved by voluntary or informal agreements. To date, the agency has not once restricted federal funding for a civil rights violation.
But under the Biden administration, there have been signs that the EPA wants to put environmental justice at the forefront of its policies.
In October, the agency released a draft strategic plan that aims to revamp its civil rights enforcement program. The plan says the EPA will “vigorously enforce” federal civil rights law to “address the legacy of pollution in overburdened communities that results from discriminatory actions, whether direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional.” . This reflects a sharp break with the strategic plans of the Obama and Trump administrations, which did not mention civil rights – let alone make it a central objective.
“This could be a turning point in how the EPA addresses environmental racism,” said Anjana Malhotra, senior counsel at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and co-lawyer on the complaint. “It’s a historic recognition of how [the EPA] did not address environmental injustice.
After community groups filed their lawsuit against the North Brooklyn pipeline, the EPA launched an investigation into the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, while the Department of Transportation began investigating the New York Civil Service Commission. Those investigations are currently on hold while federal agencies meet with the state to seek an informal resolution.
In a recent development, Malhotra and Wilson were invited to meet with federal agencies in January. There, co-counsel submitted a letter reiterating why it is “unequivocally clear” that the Department of Environmental Conservation violated the law and to push for greater inclusion of their clients in the informal resolution. The process typically does not include complainants, but the EPA and the Department of Transportation are developing a new model to better include affected communities, according to Malhotra and Wilson.
It’s a significant development, given that Brooklynites say they were never given the opportunity to consent to the pipeline — a frequent complaint shared by environmental justice communities.
“[National Grid] never reached out to me, never reached out to my neighbors next door, none of us,” said Rogers, a member of Brownsville Green Justice, one of the groups behind the complaint. .
If no agreement can be reached, investigations will resume – with a total of 180 days to possibly come to preliminary findings of discrimination.
A DPS spokesperson says the agency’s decision to approve the pipeline was based on “a strong factual record,” while a Department of Environmental Conservation spokesperson similarly claims that the agency “subjects each application to a rigorous review of all applicable federal and state standards.”
As for the EPA’s environmental justice record, there are some promising changes. Marianne Engelman-Lado, an attorney who previously described the agency as “spectacularly unable to ensure recipients of EPA funding adhere to Title VI non-discrimination provisions,” was appointed to the agency. Last year.
The EPA also released two letters with preliminary findings of civil rights violations in 2021, for separate complaints in California and Missouri. And in September, the agency responded to an audit of the inspector general’s office with steps and timelines to improve civil rights oversight — from more guidance to authorize rulings to opening investigations even before a complaint is filed.
These moves could mean good news for organizers like those challenging the North Brooklyn pipeline.
“Our Brooklyn neighborhoods have always been dumping grounds,” said Pati Rodriguez, a community organizer with Mi Casa Resiste, a Bushwick-based group that resists gentrification and displacement, and one of the plaintiffs. “[But] it is our neighborhoods that we have managed.