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.