Aside from the fact that it was unseasonably warm, March 16 seemed like any other day at Greenpoint’s PS 34. Local parent Lisa Jaycox went to pick up her son after school as usual, when he showed her the new hat and gloves he had just received for free.
Representatives from energy utility National Grid, currently embroiled in a contentious battle to install a new pipeline through North Brooklyn, were there to hand out winter accessories to the students during PS 34’s after-school program.
Jaycox found it strange that National Grid would be at her son’s school of all places, as PS 34 is an eco-school with a particular focus on sustainability initiatives. She then ran into Marzena Wolert, another PS 34 parent and frequent volunteer, who was chalking up the sidewalk with anti-National Grid sentiment.
Wolert had known that National Grid was planning on showing up that day thanks to a bulletin on the school resource portal ParentSquare. She had reached out to the school in advance, though as an involved parent, she hesitated to burn any bridges.
“I felt like I was in a really difficult position. I have a really good relationship with admin,” Wolert recalled to Greenpointers. “I’m leading the garden committee this year. Putting myself between National Grid and the school, it felt really uncomfortable…but my heart and my passion was like, ‘This is not ok.'”
When she ran into Lisa Jaycox after school that day, the two decided to spring into activist mode.
“I saw this clearly as a move to try to capture images that impress goodwill on the community and show that National Grid is supposedly a good community partner, when in reality, I believe that to be very much a lie, given the history of the last two years and their behavior,” said Jaycox.
The parents approached the table where the National Grid representatives were stationed and asked if they could record them, which the representatives agreed to. “Does National Grid have plans to continue the pipeline that there’s a lot of opposition from us right now, do you know?” Wolert can be heard saying in the video posted to the No North Brooklyn Pipeline Instagram account.
The representative hesitates, looking at their phone before an offscreen voice states that they’re not able to comment on that. “I’m just bringing it up because a lot of these kids’ actual future is in jeopardy, because of this pipeline, and this type of energy, which unfortunately is very dirty. We need to be on renewables, like, yesterday” Wolert continues.
Jaycox said that National Grid told them that this was part of their community outreach efforts, in a new initiative called Project C. Once the parents inquired about the pipeline, the representatives changed their tune.
“They wanted to push us over to subject matter experts. They wanted to arrange a separate meeting with us and push it off, so they could regroup and prepare,” said Jaycox.
Local non-profit St. Nicks Alliance runs the after-school program at PS 34, as well as after-school programs in the area. Photographers were on site to capture the students posing with their free swag. Concerned parents reached out to St. Nicks Alliance directly, to prevent National Grid from using those photos as publicity images or social media fodder. St Nick’s Alliance confirmed to Greenpointers that National Grid does not have permission to use the photos.
“National Grid approached us to have a winter hat and glove giveaway toward the end of winter. We thought it would be a good opportunity to provide new hats and gloves to the families in our community who might be in need of these. Especially as every penny counts in our current time. There were no strings attached to the giveaway imposed on us by National Grid. We reached out to National Grid when it was brought to our attention that some parents were upset in thinking this was a publicity stunt for National Grid. We told National Grid of parent concerns about not wanting pictures of their children to be used as publicity. National Grid responded that they would not use any of the photos they took of the children. There are no plans to bring National Grid to any St. Nicks Alliance-School Settlement Association after-school sites.”Lori Ann Doyon, communications manager for St. Nicks Alliance.
The timing of this outreach effort struck the parents as curious. While phases one through four of the pipeline, otherwise known as the Metropolitan Reliability Infrastructure Project, are complete, the fate of phase five is still up in the air. Phase five involves building north of Montrose Avenue in Bushwick and connecting to a facility in Greenpoint, along with building two new vaporizers.
“[National Grid is] still gonna need permission from the Public Service Commission to build that final phase, and they also need permission from the Department of Environmental Conservation to build new two vaporizers at their depot on Maspeth Avenue,” said Kim Fraczek, the director of Sane Energy Project, one of many neighborhood groups organizing around the issue. “They’re also currently building a liquified fracked gas trucking facility, which they’re gonna try to get rate recovery for, to try to raise our bills again to pay for it, plus ask the city of New York to give them a variance to be able to truck LNG on our streets which is currently illegal. So there’s a lot of city agencies, state agencies, it’s sort of spinning plates right now. They have a lot to do in order to wrap up this project to get their rate of return on it, which is pretty much their goal.”
This recent stunt is the latest in what many in the neighborhood feel is a long history of National Grid failing to substantially engage the community. Jaycox pointed out how neighbors were affected a few years ago by National Grid’s moratorium on new gas-hook ups for customers after the state refused to approve a new pipeline.
While National Grid has claimed over the years that they have reached out to impacted community members, Sane Energy says that the outreach has only occurred after neighborhood groups started sounding the alarm bells.
“As soon as the community found out about this, we’ve started building this movement. We connected with folks in Brownsville and Bed-Stuy and Bushwick who had been having this built through their streets for the last three years, and they never were even told about this.” said Fraczek.
“It really is not meaningful community engagement. Meaningful community engagement would mean answering health impact questions for a community that’s been poisoned by the fossil fuel industry for decades” said Lee Ziesche, also from Sane Energy Project.
North Brooklyn has historically been plagued by environmental issues. Greenpoint is home to two federal Superfund sites (Newtown Creek and now Meeker Avenue Plumes), a state Superfund site (NuHart Plastics). Brownsville, where National Grid already built the pipeline, has the city’s highest rate of asthma among adults, due in large part to substandard housing conditions. In the United States, neighborhoods historically comprised of communities of color are more likely to be exposed to pollution and toxins, through proximity to landfills, power plants, and oil and gas facilities. Ironically, though the MRI would run though North Brooklyn, it would not actually provide those residents with natural gas, highlighting how many neighbors feel that National Grid seems out of touch.
“I don’t even know what you would call tweeting about Juneteenth when you’re building a pipeline through predominantly Black and brown communities. There’s just a complete disconnect there,” added Ziesche.
Multiple community groups concerned with the potential discriminatory effects of the pipeline filed complaints with various federal agencies, and in response, the EPA recently launched an investigation into “whether the state Department of Environmental Conservation violated federal laws when it did not consider the impact of National Grid’s North Brooklyn Pipeline in an environmental review of related plans to upgrade the utility’s Greenpoint hub,” reports THE CITY.
While the pipeline’s future remains uncertain, both Marzena Wolert and Lisa Jaycox felt grateful for the community support that their video received, and that they had an impassioned community, as well as the support of Sane Energy, to back them up. They also felt grateful to St. Nicks Alliance for taking their concerns seriously.
“I’m happy that I don’t think it won a lot of hearts over to National Grid,” said Wolert.
“By working together, we can make something better out of what otherwise would have been us and our kids being taken advantage of by megacorporations,” said Jaycox.
National Grid did not directly respond to Greenpointers‘ request for comment but directed us to resources found on their website.