A disagreement over a proposed gas pipeline could keep Bushwick from some sweet and savory empanadas. Lefferts Gardens favorite Empanada City plans to open its second location at 321 Starr Street next month. However, the restaurant, along with any other businesses seeking gas service, is being denied gas from National Grid until the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) approves a National Grid-backed pipeline extension that would bring natural gas from New Jersey to New York City. The NYSDEC rejected the pipeline extension, citing water quality concerns, on May 15.
“Our concern is that we’re going to be ready to open and that we’ll have no gas,” said Briant Almonte, an owner of Empanada City alongside his wife Jessica Almonte and his in-laws, Jose and Sonia Rodriguez.
The Northeast Supply Enhancement Project (NESE) would expand the existing Transco pipeline to reach New York Bay in the Rockaways. Backed by National Grid and developed by energy company Williams, the project aims to alleviate expected increases in energy use in New York City. Still, the NYSDEC and Governor Cuomo rejected it in May, citing water quality concerns. National Grid imposed the temporary embargo on gas service immediately. When Empanada City submitted its application for gas service on June 5, it received a startling e-mail: While National Grid would continue to service buildings that already have a gas meter, new restaurants or buildings without one would have gas service stalled until the pipeline was approved.
“They’re using New Yorkers as pawns for this pipeline they want to build,” said Almonte. “It’s not like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint where if I’m not happy with Verizon, I just call up AT&T and get service from them. National Grid is the only service provider, so they’re literally holding New Yorkers hostage over this pipeline.”
Activists, the NYSDEC and Governor Cuomo have warned against NESE, saying that extending the pipeline will introduce copper and mercury fragments that would harm the already vulnerable marine life of New York Bay. The NYSDEC’s notice of denial says that copper is a “critical contaminant that is closely regulated in the environment due to its potential to have drastic and immediate effect on aquatic life.” The notice also warns against putting mercury near New York Bay marine life, saying that “people who ate fish that contained large amounts of mercury had permanent damage to the brain, kidneys and fetus.” Environmental activists have argued that the project only continues New York City’s dangerous love affair with natural gases, when the city should be looking for alternative, eco-friendly energy options, such as renewable heat (solar energy and geothermal heating) and hydropower. Out of 14,000 public comments received on behalf of 45,000 individuals during the NYSDEC’s commentary period, 90% were opposed to the pipeline.
The owners of Empanada City are eager to open their second location in Bushwick, home of Jessica Amonte’s family, but they worry about the money they may lose if National Grid doesn’t end the embargo on gas before next month’s planned opening. “We took out a $100,000 loan to pay for this project, on top of out-of-pocket money that we’ve had to put in as well to get this restaurant built,” said Briant Almonte. The family has also had to start paying rent on the new restaurant. They’ve weighed the cost of electric appliances as an alternative to gas but have determined it’s out of their budget.
Almonte says he understands the environmental concerns about the pipeline. “You want to support the environmental efforts, as it’s obviously an environmental issue, but then the other spectrum of that is, you kind of need to open your business and there isn’t an alternative at this point other than gas.”
For Empanada City, the only thing more frustrating than not getting gas from National Grid has been not hearing a peep from politicians. “Their job is to advocate for us as consumers, as residents of New York, taxpayers, and to me,” Almonte said. “The fact that there’s no talk about what a solution is going to be other than allowing National Grid to not service anyone until they get an approval is just not acceptable.”
Still, National Grid says they’ve reached their limit for gas usage. They say they’re still accepting applications, but not processing until NESE is approved. “The infrastructure serving the region has reached full capacity and is unable to meet growing demand,” Karen Young, a representative from National Grid, said in an email to Bedford + Bowery. “To add additional service would pose a risk to the integrity of our system and compromise natural gas use for our existing firm customers.”
National Grid says they’re working to speed up the process for NESE to be approved. “For several months now, we have been actively communicating to stakeholders and applicants that without approval of all permits for this important energy project, requests for new or additional natural gas load simply can’t be processed; and our outreach is ongoing,” said Young.
Williams, the energy company developing the pipeline, says it has nothing to do with National Grid’s halt of gas service, but that it understands National Grid’s concern over energy consumption in New York City. “We understand that there is a fixed amount of pipeline infrastructure which serves New York, and that existing infrastructure is operating at maximum capacity during times of peak demand,” said Williams representative Christopher Stockton in an email to Bedford + Bowery. “The demand for natural gas supply is outpacing the available pipeline capacity.”
A graph by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission indicates that between January and April, northeast natural gas consumption in 2019 was higher than the range of consumption between 2014 and 2018. Since May, consumption has been on par with top 2014-2018 levels.
The return of gas service to Empanada City, and other restaurants, is dependent on the approval of Williams’ resubmitted application for the pipeline, updated to address the NYSDEC’s concerns. Williams says it submitted a new version of its application on May 17, two days after the NYSDEC rejected its originally application. That was the latest update they’ve received on the pipeline.
“We strongly believe the discrete technical issues raised on May 15, 2019, by the NYSDEC were addressed in our previous application,” said Stockton. “In this application, we have provided additional information showing that these issues have been addressed.”
Williams says that the pipeline’s use of natural gas actually helps the environment in New York City. “Without the natural gas capacity created by the project, energy users will be forced to rely on dirty heating oil,” says Stockton. “The natural gas supply created by the project will help facilitate continued heating oil to natural gas conversions, thereby reducing the region’s greenhouse gas emissions by 200,000 tons per year– equal to removing 500,000 cars from the road per year.”
Empanada City is known for its empanadas, which include Puerto Rican and Dominican varieties such as pastelon and ropa vieja, and American fast food ones like pizza burger and barbecue chicken. Located two blocks from the Jefferson Street L stop, the new location hopes to serve beer, wine, and spiked versions of its beloved fruit smoothies. It could serve as a trusty post-bar grub spot, if it can open before it runs out of money to pay the rent.