On September 26, the weekend after a Kentucky grand jury announced that it would charge only one officer in the death of Breonna Taylor, the Black woman who was shot and killed in her sleep by police, a deluge of protesters flooded the plaza in front of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Many carried BLM signs and chanted the names of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and other victims whose names have become mantras against systemic racism.
Just 4 miles away in the neighborhood of Brownsville, several dozen people began a smaller march towards a construction site. Here, there were no helicopters hovering or scores of riot police on standby. Instead, a crowd of mostly Black and Latino residents held “Love your neighbors” and “Brownsville Lives Matter” signs in a final effort to halt a little-known pipeline that, if completed, will circulate fracked gas through their neighborhood by the end of next month.
But as the final phase of the pipeline’s construction approaches, protests have intensified and residents have grown more desperate. On Thursday morning, two protesters climbed into the construction site and stood with a “frack out of Brooklyn” sign, refusing to leave. NYPD vans rushed to the scene and police arrested four people.
“We cannot cherry-pick when Black lives matter,” Gabriel Jamison, a 24-year old protest leader, told me last week. “Black lives also matter when it comes to environmental justice.”
The Metropolitan Natural Gas Reliability Project, or the North Brooklyn pipeline as it’s known by locals, is a project spearheaded by National Grid that will transport fracked gas from the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and connect it to a liquefied natural gas facility in New York City. On its way there, it will snake under 7 miles of low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn, including Brownsville, where residents have been reeling from years of environmental neglect.
Brownsville is three-quarters Black and one-fifth Latino; it is the type of place where the sense of community is palpable and locals strike up long conversations with one another at the deli. But the neighborhood also has the second-highest concentration of public housing buildings in New York, which are notoriously underfunded and falling apart. The life expectancy in Brownsville is seven years below the city’s average. Fourteen percent of its adults have asthma—the highest rate in New York City—which experts believe may be a result of housing violations that leave tenants disproportionately exposed to mold and pests. Factors like these have left residents especially susceptible to the pandemic: more than 5,000 people in the neighborhood have tested positive for COVID-19 since March.
“How are we going to fight police violence if we have poor health?”
Even before they found out about the construction of the North Brooklyn pipeline, Brownsville residents were keenly aware of the toll that environmental neglect was taking on them; Jamison, who was born and raised in Brownsville, had a family friend who died suddenly of asthma when he was just a boy, which he attributes to weak policies surrounding air quality. Celina Trowell, another resident involved in the protests, said her son’s school doesn’t let students drink from the water fountains at school because of rusted lead pipes.
“When we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, it’s about the totality in which Black Lives exist,” Trowell said. “How are we going to fight police violence if we have poor health?”
The North Brooklyn pipeline has been under construction since 2018 and is set to be completed mid-October. But locals all along the pipeline’s route didn’t mobilize against it until the summer of 2019, more than a year into its construction. The reason it took so long for them to act was because the official name of the project doesn’t include the word “pipeline” in it and its construction sites look like standard plumbing work, which allowed it to go largely unnoticed.
It wasn’t until employees at the Sane Energy Project, a renewable energy advocacy organization, first found out there was going to be a $185 million rate spike for National Grid customers in the area—or approximately $16 per household each month—that they discovered the money was going into the construction of a new fracked gas pipeline. So, they alerted community organizers including Jamison, who went door-to-door to tell neighbors.
Scores of residents expressed concerns around health, particularly the pipeline’s potential effects on groundwater, air quality, and safety. Although the long-term effects of exposure to fracked gas are not yet clear, the East Coast fracking boom of the past several years has provided enough anecdotal evidence to hint at its devastating consequences. In the previous decade, there were more than 1,200 recorded pipeline accidents. In 2018, a pipeline explosion near Boston killed one person and injured dozens. In 2010, a transmission line similar to the one being built under Brooklyn killed eight in San Bruno, California.
Even though explosions are rare, leaks are not, and can expose residents to cancer-causing and potentially radioactive methane gas, which is 28 times more toxic to the environment than carbon dioxide. When asked about whether or not National Grid would test for radon and other toxins associated with fracked gas, Karen Young, a National Grid representative, said that National Grid worked “closely with industry and government agencies on a variety of measures used to ensure safety.”
Most residents were angry when they learned about the pipeline and more still when they found out they were paying for it. Noel Sanchez, a 24-year old youth educator, started to attend weekly Zoom meetings to halt the pipeline in April.
“It’s no coincidence that the majority of this will go through neighborhoods that are poor, Black, and brown,” he told me.
Young insisted the pipeline wouldn’t bring any more natural gas into New York and likened it to “adding an extra lane to a very busy road to help reduce traffic,” so its effect on communities would be minimal. But in an evidentiary hearing in February, Lee Ziesche of the Sane Energy Project asked National Grid if they had looked into the demographics of the neighborhood along the pipeline’s route before construction. The company answered with a simple “no.”
In a rate case document, National Grid outlined it determined the pipeline’s route by “studying surveys, completing test pits to identify utilities along the route, and then ensuring that pipe can be installed on the selected route.”
But Kim Fraczek, the director of the Sane Energy Project, compared the pipeline’s route to redlining and said its path through public housing projects and low-income communities of color didn’t seem like a coincidence, a sentiment that resonated with many residents along the project’s route.
Still, despite the power of Big Gas, pipelines in Brooklyn have been beaten before. The Williams pipeline, which was supposed to flow under New York harbor and transport fracked gas to Long Island, would have left marine life and seaside communities in the Rockaways open to major spills. After two years of intense backlash, including from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortes, Governor Andrew Cuomo blocked its construction in May.
Many politicians have also voiced opposition to the North Brooklyn pipeline. In February, a letter from Senator Julia Salazar asking Cuomo to halt the project was co-signed by 20 other elected officials. Earlier this month, Assembly Member Robert Caroll of the 44th District did the same. But neither Cuomo nor Mayor Bill DeBlasio have committed to stopping it.
Although Cuomo banned fracking in New York state in 2014, he has not cracked down with the same intensity against the use of it as an energy source. Patrick Houston, who works for an organization called New York Communities for Change and played a role in stopping the Williams pipeline, says it took dozens of rallies, including one across the Brooklyn Bridge, to halt the pipeline. He attributes the success in part to activists identifying its construction very early on, a luxury that the activists fighting the North Brooklyn pipeline don’t have. And, despite the governor’s pro-green rhetoric, Houston says natural gas projects are still popping up all over New York.
“Fighting fossil fuel projects is like playing a game of whack-a-mole,” he said.
Even when the North Brooklyn pipeline is finished, its viability will remain uncertain as renewable energy continues to become cheap enough to compete with natural gas and may be cheaper by 2023. Big corporations justify the construction of more natural gas infrastructure by branding fracked gas as a “bridge fuel,” or an intermediate step in the transition from oil to clean energy, according to NYU Environmental Studies professor Colin Jerolmack.
Jamison believes that a direct transition into renewable energies is possible. In 2017, he was the campaign manager of a “solar boot camp” that trained local kids to be “solar pioneers” and helped solarize a staggering 3,000 homes in Brownsville. He is one of many residents who see a direct transition into solar energy as the only way for people in the neighborhood to have a say in their own health instead of leaving it at the hands of energy corporations. For him and others, there is also a sense that the pipeline is a symbolic step backwards that will dig residents deeper into environmental doom, instead of initiating a process of lifting them out.
But there is a limit to what people can endure. “If the pipeline does come to Brownsville,” Jamison said, “I don’t think I can live here anymore.”
Walking through the streets of Brownsville, neighbors greet each other from across the street, men play chess on foldable chairs, and people blast hip-hop from their cars, windows rolled down. Black Lives Matter signs cut from cardboard boxes rest on apartment windows. In spite of everything residents have gone through in the past year, there is an undeniable air of togetherness. One resident and protest leader, Anna Tsomo Leidecker, told me that kindness and strength was everywhere, exemplified by a local garden that distributed free food to people during the height of the pandemic. Another resident said she thinks Brownsville should be considered a national treasure (Planned Parenthood, civil rights activist Al Sharpton, and one-third of the Wu-Tang Clan were all made here).
“When I think of Brownsville, I think of literal strength,” Sanchez said. “Our fight against systemic racism is what makes us a community.”
Correction: In an earlier version of the story, Celina Trowell said she doesn’t allow her son to drink from the water fountains at his school because of rusty lead pipes. In fact, her son’s school prohibits everyone from drinking from the fountains.