Pati Rodriguez grew up in Bushwick, a historically industrial, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. She has worked as a community organizer for years, and at 38, she knows the neighborhood inside and out. So she was surprised last year to learn about a natural gas pipeline being built a block away from her daughter’s school, more than two years after its construction had begun.
Rodriguez says she learned about the Metropolitan Reliability Infrastructure (MRI) project – more often referred to as the North Brooklyn pipeline by local activists – from the anti-fracking advocacy group Sane Energy Project, which for the last year has held neighborhood meetings to raise awareness of the construction.
“I’m a community organizer,” said Rodriguez. “So if I didn’t know about it, then obviously other people didn’t know about it.”
National Grid, the public utility company behind the pipeline, has already completed the first four phases of construction, and says it did community outreach in neighborhoods that would be affected. But residents like Rodriguez dispute the claim, saying they only learned about the project in 2019 because of local environmentalist groups. (National Grid did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment on this matter.)
Those groups – like the Sane Energy Project and Frack Outta Brooklyn – are calling on local officials to stop the pipeline, and say the project – which is meant to funnel fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania to existing infrastructure in north Brooklyn – is another example of environmental racism taking place in Black and brown communities.
“Environmental racism, racial justice, we need to teach our kids about this,” says Gabriel Jamison, a local organizer who has been leading teach-ins about the pipeline. “Because we are the dumping ground. That’s what they label us as.”
In the US, people of color are far more likely than white Americans to live near polluting facilities and get sicker because of it. The MRI is no exception: As a transmission pipeline, the MRI will only be used to move gas through National Grid’s existing system, rather than distributing gas directly to the households living in closest proximity to it.
Additionally, New York activists say investing in new oil and gas infrastructure will only slow down the transition to renewable energy, which would help mitigate the climate crisis.
To pay for the pipeline, which would not service the city’s residents, National Grid is seeking a rate hike of $185m.
The seven-mile long pipeline will run underneath low-income neighborhoods where a majority of the population is Black or Hispanic, including Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville, where Jamison was born and raised.
Residents in these neighborhoods face inordinate environmental health burdens. In 2012, Bushwick had more than twice as many avoidable asthma hospitalizations than Brooklyn did as a whole, according to a city report. Brownsville, where 78% of residents are Black, has the highest adult asthma rates in New York City.
“There’s always been disinvestment in our communities,” Rodriguez says. “This is just gonna make it worse.”
Since October, Rodriguez has participated in a series of protests against the project, led by the No North Brooklyn Pipeline Coalition and Frack Outta Brooklyn. The movement received a flurry of media attention earlier this year, when activists effectively shut down construction on the pipeline by chaining themselves to the site, resulting in the arrest of five protesters.
The activists have continued to utilize tactics such as this throughout the winter. Protesters have picked up crucial support from local lawmakers; recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the pipeline “unnecessary” and urged National Grid to pull the project.
For Rodriguez, the fight against the MRI is personal: she’s one of an estimated 153,000 New Yorkers who lives within the 1,275-foot blast zone of the pipeline. A total of 55 public schools fall in this evacuation zone, alongside 81 daycare facilities, nine healthcare centers, and three nursing homes, according to analyses by the No North Brooklyn Pipeline Coalition.
“We’re not going to let this happen under our homes and under our public schools and under our daycares and all the small businesses in the area,” Rodriguez says. Pipelines, she adds, “are a huge danger.”
More than explosions, which are fairly rare, Brooklyn residents living alongside oil and gas infrastructure face day-to-day health risks , like leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to atmospheric warming an estimated 86 times more than carbon dioxide.
The public utility has claimed in meetings with Brooklyn’s community boards that it made outreach efforts to inform Brooklyn residents before beginning construction years ago – a fact that many organizers contest.
“They’re liars,” says Jamison, the organizer from Brownsville.
“This is my community,” Jamison adds. “I know everything in and out of this neighborhood. Ain’t nothing I don’t know about in Brownsville. Who’s knocking on doors?”
Jamison fears for the safety of his niece above all, and believes his community is, time and time again, treated as a “sacrifice zone” by oil and gas companies and by the elected officials who permit the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure.
Advocates remain hopeful that the rate case will turn out in their favor. Lee Ziesche, who runs community engagement for Sane Energy Project, says de Blasio’s latest comments will aid their calls for Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, to pull National Grid’s permits, deny its request for a rate hike and ensure that gas never flows through the nearly-completed pipeline it at any point.
Doing so would also meet the demands of a growing number of city, state and federal leaders who’ve shown up to protests for the No North Brooklyn Pipeline Coalition over the last few months. Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, has opposed the pipeline, along with mayoral candidate and city comptroller Scott Stringer, state assembly members Emily Gallagher and Latrice Walker, and US Representative Nydia Velazquez.
Organizers are still making phone calls, holding teach-ins and workshops, and knocking on doors to inform their neighbors about the pipeline. Benny Woodard, an activist who locked himself to the pipeline with Rodriguez in October says negotiations at the state level have at times felt “really dark.” But he feels he has no choice but to continue, to ensure that National Grid doesn’t complete the pipeline and begin putting it to use.
“The alternative is giving National Grid permission to do whatever they want, to come in here and drop a bomb,” Woodard says.
Likewise, Rodriguez continues to talk to her daughter about the pipeline, and about their responsibility to protect the planet.
“It’s all about trying to defend this land that was originally Indigenous, stolen land,” says Rodriguez.
She continues to visit the community garden near her daughter’s school, where students learn to grow food and tend to plants. Protecting her neighborhood from the damage a pipeline could do requires protecting that small plot of land as much as any other.
“All these fights are attached to the land,” Rodriguez says. “It’s not ours to exploit – and not these companies’, either.”