by Samantha Maldonado, THE CITY
On the northeastern edge of industrial Greenpoint in Brooklyn sit eight massive, silver spheres that look as though they’re extraterrestrial.
These are the “digester eggs” of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, which treats up to 310 million gallons of sewage per day.
Those eggs digest the muck-filled water and, much like the human body, turn it into methane, the primary component of natural gas.
From a nearby roof topped with wildflowers, it’s possible to see the Manhattan skyline behind the plant — but in one place, above four cylinders, the view beyond seems wavy.
It’s the optical effect of looking through methane being burned off by the plant and released into the air as carbon dioxide.
If a plan in the works for over a decade and originally scheduled for completion in 2015 had come to fruition, that would not be happening.
‘An Obvious Solution’
Under a project by National Grid in partnership with the city Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Sanitation, the methane produced from the facility is supposed to be directed to the homes of gas customers. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the gas diversion project, the city nine years ago started adding even more food waste to help spur the production of methane.
In 2013, when the Bloomberg administration announced the partnership effort, City Hall heralded it as an innovation that would improve local air quality, reduce organic material sent to landfills and provide clean energy to gas customers, thereby reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
“It was an obvious sustainability solution, if we could make it happen,” said Carter Strickland, the former DEP commissioner under Mayor Mike Bloomberg from 2011 to 2014. “It would be a full realization for a vision of a circular economy. Households make waste, and they get the natural gas back.”
There was plenty of excitement in the neighborhood, too.
Lisa Bloodgood, acting director of North Brooklyn Neighbors who at the time worked in the office of former City Council Stephen Levin, said she and her neighbors felt that the project was “something we’re all really excited about and really proud of that we can host, even though we’re already overburdened in North Brooklyn with so much infrastructure.”
But that enthusiasm waned as National Grid continually pushed the project’s completion date into the future.
Meanwhile, National Grid has repeatedly touted the project as part of its green commitment, now frustrating community members, elected officials and environmental advocates.
“It’s supposed to be a step in the right direction in terms of getting off fracked gas and other hazardous fuel sources and creating a local fuel supply and helping with climate change overall, but in fact it’s just been contributing to carbon emissions,” said Willis Elkins, executive director of Newtown Creek Alliance.
“It’s pretty ridiculous at this point how far behind schedule they are,” he lamented. “There’s been no accountability for this project.”
Burned Money and Tripled Costs
The Newtown Creek plant generates what’s called biogas as a byproduct of the wastewater treatment process. About 60% of that biogas, which is mostly methane, helps power the facility itself, according to fiscal year 2021 figures provided by the DEP (the plant also relies on some natural gas).
The rest is burned off, or “flared.”
Flaring the biogas burns off the methane, but releases carbon dioxide. Harnessing the excess methane — which is burned because it’s a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — for household energy use would avoid those carbon dioxide emissions.
In an effort to avoid carbon emissions and replace fracked gas, the plan was for National Grid to purify the biogas in order to inject it into its system, enough to heat about 5,2000 homes. The project would also result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing nearly 19,000 cars from the road, City Hall estimated in 2013.
The operation of National Grid’s equipment to purify the biogas would “virtually eliminate” the flaring of biogas, according to a 2021 document from National Grid obtained by THE CITY.
The same document showed that the budget for the project as of 2012 was about $14.6 million but ballooned to roughly $47.8 million as of February 2021.
National Grid spokesperson Karen Young did not provide a current cost estimate for the project but said the company would ask the state utility regulator to approve a plan for utility customers to cover the expenses.
The construction of the purification system only began in June 2018, according to the document, but National Grid chalked up the delays over the years to equipment outages, the need to relocate the original site of the project, the pandemic, design changes and the availability of materials.
Now it’s scheduled to be done in July, DEP Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala, who also serves as the mayor’s chief climate officer, said during a March City Council budget hearing when pressed by Councilmember Lincoln Restler (D-Brooklyn), who represents the area.
“This project is one of the most consequential emissions reduction opportunities in New York City today and it’s inexcusable we have suffered from years of delays,” Restler told THE CITY. “The crisis of climate change requires us to move with utmost urgency and haste to get this done.”
Young said the company is “committed” to completing the project by July.
A Timeline of Frustration
North Brooklynites who have been long engaged with the project are skeptical.
“There were so many days given when it would be completed that I’ve lost track of it,” said Christine Holowacz, a longtime Greenpoint resident. “Every time you get a new date, you’re like, ‘Okay. Great. Terrific.’”
Holowacz formerly worked as the community liaison for the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee, a group that formed in the 1990s and would meet regularly with DEP to discuss changes to the treatment facility, including the National Grid project.
A review of National Grid materials illuminates the long journey of the project, which had been on the drawing board since at least 2009.
A 2010 report from National Grid describes a “demonstration project” to produce renewable gas at Newtown Creek — essentially a scaled down version of the project announced with the city in 2013. A 2014 press release from the utility company sets the completion date as fall 2016. A 2019 report calls the project part of the company’s “clean energy promise.”
The office of former Councilmember Levin, who then represented the area, worked with the neighborhood residents for years to get answers on the project but never did, according to former staff.
“The community was frustrated to the point of throwing up their hands,” Levin said.
One component of the proposed project promised to transform food scraps into clean power, diverting organic waste from landfills. Organic material like food scraps makes up about a third of the city’s discarded waste — attracting rats curbside and seeping methane when landfilled.
To boost the production of biogas at the wastewater treatment plant — in order to supply National Grid’s customers — the city in 2013 began adding a smoothie of food waste from public schools and restaurants to the wastewater sludge that’s treated at the plant.
The original goal was to add as much as 250 tons of organic waste into the digesters per day. Now about 130 tons of food scraps go into the eggs daily — though the amount fluctuates.
But without National Grid pumping the resulting methane back into its distribution system, the food scraps just increased the amount of biogas flared at the facility, adding to local emissions.
DEP spokesperson Ted Timbers noted that most of the carbon dioxide emissions spewing from the facility are biogenic, meaning it was already present in the carbon cycle and different from fossil fuels. Biogenic carbon doesn’t count towards the city’s greenhouse gas benchmarking.
Timbers argued in an email that digesting the food waste in the facility, using some of the byproduct to power the facility and then burning the excess is “more environmentally friendly than simply sending it to landfill,” where it might’ve released methane directly into the air.
But the city shouldn’t be landfilling organic material at all, countered Justin Wood, director of policy for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
“The methane flaring is really disappointing because this has been going on for years,” Wood said. He added that composting organic material as well as producing biogas from it should be part of the city’s waste management strategy.
Bloodgood of North Brooklyn Neighbors said she is still as“obsessed” with the project as she was since she first heard of it and wants it to succeed.
“I want to see it as a model, as something that we as a community and as a city can be proud of,” Bloodgood said. “It’s painful to see how slow and challenging this is for reasons that are unknown, because it’s a potential part of our resilient future.”
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