In the Rockaways, pipeline debate takes a contentious turn

A natural gas pipeline under construction worries New York residents still recovering from Hurricane Sandy

New York City’s Rockaway Beach in Queens last summer. Opponents of a natural gas pipeline in the Rockaways say having one there is particularly dangerous.
Andrew Burton / Getty Images

FAR ROCKAWAY, N.Y. — On the night of Sept. 9, 2010, a 30-inch natural gas pipeline buried underneath the city of San Bruno, California, exploded. The fire was so large and the corresponding roar so loud that many residents thought a plane from the nearby San Francisco International Airport had crashed.

The next morning, state Sen. Jerry Hill walked through the Crestmoor neighborhood and surveyed the damage: eight people dead, dozens of houses leveled, an entire neighborhood transformed overnight.

“I have a difficult time talking about it because people died,” Hill says through tears. “The houses were still smoking … I was standing next to automobiles where the tires were just melted off. That’s what began the questioning for me. How could that happen? What went wrong?”

The San Bruno disaster is what activists point to when they talk about the dangers of natural gas pipelines. And it’s here in the Rockaways — a working-class beach community off the coast of Brooklyn and Queens — that the discussion has taken one of its most contentious turns.

A new pipeline called the Rockaway Delivery Lateral Project is under construction in the Rockaways. It will deliver 647,000 dekatherms of natural gas to New York City each day — enough to power 2.5 million homes. Activists, organized into two loosely affiliated groups, the Coalition Against the Rockaway Pipeline (CARP) and No Rockaway Pipeline, say the project is inherently dangerous and is just the latest sign of a broken approval and monitoring process for the United States’ energy infrastructure. They say if the history of pipelines and of the company building this pipeline is any lesson, residents of the Rockaways have reason to be concerned.

“It’s happening so fast,” says Elizabeth Press, a filmmaker from Brooklyn who joined the protests after riding her bike past the construction site one day. “You leave and come back, and it’s already under construction. There are people at the beach just going about their activities while they’re building something with such high risk.”

But at least for now, their fight might be winding down. Williams, one of the nation’s largest pipeline companies, has already begun laying pipe off the coast. When the project is complete, it will connect Williams’ existing Transco pipeline in the Atlantic — which gathers and distributes gas throughout the eastern United States, including the shale gas fields of Pennsylvania and Ohio — to New York City’s gas distribution system.

‘This community knows disaster. People here had a front seat view for 9/11. They were devastated by Hurricane Sandy … We don’t need another disaster.’

Victoria Barber

Rockaways resident and anti-pipeline campaigner

Rockaway Lateral won’t increase the amount of natural gas flowing through New York by much, but it will allow Williams to circumvent its circuitous current pipeline system, which runs through Long Island to get to Brooklyn and Queens. Instead, a new three-mile section will run between the popular beaches of Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden and under a golf course and then connect to a pipeline run by National Grid, one of the main gas providers in New York City. That pipeline will run for 1.6 miles, under a federally protected wildlife refuge and into a hangar, where it will feed into the city’s existing delivery system.

The Rockaway Lateral pipeline is not unique; it will be one short section of hundreds of thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines in the United States. But activists in the Rockaways say that pipelines are a bad idea everywhere and that having one there is particularly dangerous.

“This community knows disaster,” says Victoria Barber, an anti-pipeline campaigner and a resident of the area. “People here had a front seat view for 9/11. They were devastated by Hurricane Sandy … We don’t need another disaster.”

In 2012, Sandy was responsible for 1,600 pipeline leaks, according to data compiled by the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica, though none of the incidents caused injury or serious damage.

Hundreds of natural gas pipelines fail each year, and the Department of Transportation has called federal and state oversight programs for pipelines lacking. Since 1986, there have been about 8,000 significant pipeline incidents in the United States, which have resulted in over 500 deaths, more than 2,300 injuries and billions of dollars in damage, according to data compiled by the Center for Biological Diversity from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). About 7 percent of those incidents happen because of natural disasters or other forces of nature — something that’s particularly worrying in a place that was hard hit by Sandy, activists say.

‘When people think of infrastructure, they think of bridges and tunnels, but we have so much going on underground that needs to be taken care of.’

Jim Ruane

mayor, San Bruno, California

The PHMSA has been criticized for failing to address pipeline safety issues. Last year a Congressional Research Service report found a “long-term pattern of understaffing” at the agency, with only 135 people employed to inspect the 305,000 miles of natural gas pipeline in the country as well as all the other ones that transport oil and other substances. Each year, on average, the PHMSA requested 23 more pipeline inspectors than it received, according to the report.

“When people think of infrastructure, they think of bridges and tunnels, but we have so much going on underground that needs to be taken care of,” says San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane. “The regulatory powers that oversee utilities aren’t doing their job, so a disaster could happen anywhere.”

Activists fighting the pipeline say the PHMSA’s shortcomings should have people worried. Williams pipelines have been involved in at least 50 gas transmission incidents since 2006, according to PHMSA data. And Williams is the subject of a U.S. Chemical Safety Board probe because of a recent string of incidents.

In 2013 two people were killed when a Williams-owned petrochemical facility in Louisiana exploded. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company for a “willful violation” of standard safety practices for that incident. Also last year, 13 construction workers were injured when a Williams gas facility caught fire in Branchburg, New Jersey. This March a Williams gas plant in Plymouth, Washington, exploded, injuring five and forcing the evacuation of the entire town. In April a Williams pipeline in West Virginia exploded, setting fire to two acres of trees. Later that month a pipeline in Wyoming owned by Williams caught fire, forcing the evacuation of 95 nearby residents. And last month a Williams compressor station in Pennsylvania caught fire.

“Three major incidents in less than a year — that’s too frequent,” says Dan Tillema, the lead investigator at the safety board. “That’s more than we’d typically see.”

Williams says it is committed to safety and is conducting an internal audit of its safety practices.

“The string of incidents was very uncharacteristic,” says Williams spokesman Chris Stockton. “When we do have incidents, we take them very seriously … Safety is not a destination you reach. It’s an ongoing journey.”

Stockton also points out that Williams has operated pipelines near the Rockaways for decades without incident, including one in nearby Long Beach.

Still, that’s little reassurance to those in the Rockaways. They say no matter how safely Williams operates the pipeline, it will always be a danger to the neighborhood. 

‘People didn’t have electricity. They weren’t watching the news.’

Victoria Barber

Rockaway Beach is a middle-class community filled mostly with one- and two-story houses, tightly packed together. It is surrounded by beach and ocean and is an hour from Manhattan on public transit. Though part of New York City, it feels a world apart.

On a recent gray weekday, Victoria Barber and her friend Albert Carcaterra, 19, met at the office of You Are Never Alone (YANA) a community organization that helps locals with rebuilding homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy as well as with applying for jobs and food stamps.

The office has become the de facto center for anti-pipeline activism, with several groups, including CARP (mostly defunct since construction on the pipeline began) and the newer, more aggressive No Rockaway Pipeline, which has attempted to shut down work on the pipeline in protests.

Barber and Carcaterra drove to the beach to photograph the drilling rig and boats as part of Barber’s project to take photos of the neighborhood; she has an exhibition of her post-Sandy photo series at the YANA office now. Except for a small sign on a construction access road, there’s no indication the pipeline is being built at all.

They say that most people in the neighborhood don’t know about the pipeline, and the two don’t blame them. The New York Natural Gas Supply Enhancement Act — the bill that gave Williams the federal OK for the pipeline — was passed by Congress and signed into law in November 2012, weeks after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Rockaways, leaving thousands in the area without power. (Because the pipeline runs through nationally protected land, it needed an act of Congress to be approved.)

Barber believes that if the public had been more informed and the timing of the bill had been different, opposition would have been stronger. “People didn’t have electricity,” she says. “They weren’t watching the news.”

The review process was stacked against pipeline opponents from the start, say the activists.

The shorter National Grid segment connects the Williams pipeline to a metering station under the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a federally protected wildlife habitat. The Williams segment required a federal environmental review as an interstate pipeline. (It connects the Transco pipeline to New York City’s gas delivery system via New Jersey.) But the National Grid portion was billed as an expansion of the company’s services in New York City and therefore required only the city’s approval, which it got in 2012.

‘The long, public back-and-forth communication between regulators and us turned out to be a sham. We voiced all our concerns, only to have them ignored.’

Maureen Healy

anti-fracking activist

According to Andrew Jones, a fellow at the Center for Urban Environmental Reform at the City University of New York, the pipeline’s division allowed federal regulators to approve the Williams portion without considering its full potential for environmental impact. He believes that the two pipelines are one project and should be reviewed as such by the federal government.

The separate approvals for both segments of what should be a single pipeline “proved that the long, public back-and-forth communication between regulators and us turned out to be a sham,” says Maureen Healy, a CARP co-founder and a longtime anti-fracking activist from Brooklyn. “We voiced all our concerns, only to have them ignored.”

With both sections scheduled to begin operation in November, Healy, Barber and others say it’s time to start focusing on the future. They say for the safety of the community, it’s important that people not forget that the Rockaway Lateral Project exists and remember how controversial it was at its inception.

When the pipeline in San Bruno exploded in 2010, it was 54 years old. Hardly anyone knew it was there.

In the Rockaways, people are paying attention now. That attention can help keep Williams, politicians and federal regulators on their toes, says Mark McDonald, a pipeline safety expert at NatGas Consulting, which works to improve the safety of natural gas projects. But after the last inch of pipe is laid and the ground covered up, the beach will go back to looking like any other beach, the golf course like a golf course and the park like a park — and it’s likely that the attention surrounding the pipeline will dissipate.

“The pipeline goes in, and everyone will go back with their lives,” McDonald says. “That’s where the concern comes in, because everyone will forget.”

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