Skip to Content

Nothing to See Here, Just Flaring Methane in Greenpoint Per Usual

As the City ramps up its organics collections requirements while also cutting long-standing community programs, you can watch it burn compost in real time.

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (NYC Water/Flickr)

In recent weeks, residents of Greenpoint may have noticed an inordinate amount of flames shooting from the metal towers outside of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

This is the plant burning off excess methane—known as flaring—and it was supposed to be a thing of the past. For years, Greenpoint residents raised concerns about the flaring of the methane, which nationwide contributes to poor respiratory health and premature births

Last year, the City announced the completion of a long-delayed plan to have the natural gas company National Grid purify the methane, which comes from a mixture of treated sewage and the bioslurry produced by the City's composting program, and use it to heat homes in Greenpoint, in addition to powering the plant itself. According to documents obtained by The CITY, this process would "virtually eliminate" the need to flare any excess methane. 

But according to Willis Elkins at the Newtown Creek Alliance, an environmental group that has been monitoring the plant for years, the flaring has been still happening fairly frequently, even while National Grid says its purification system is "online."

"It's been on and off for the past month or so. It's been pretty bad at times, and they've given us no real response as to why," Elkins, who took the video above, told Hell Gate. "It's still very frustrating that the DEP and National Grid still can't figure this system out reliably and finally end the flaring," Elkins added.

A spokesperson for the DEP told Hell Gate in a statement that "we have been very upfront since the beginning that there will be occasional flaring, which can occur during times of maintenance or intermittent shutdowns and we are in constant contact with the community."

Meanwhile, National Grid did not respond to our questions about the flaring, and insisted that their purification system, which got off to a bumpy start, is 100 percent operational.

The continued inexplicable flaring is especially troubling because the City has doubled down on converting compostable materials into fossil fuels, while drastically cutting funding that went to nonprofit groups who turn organics into compost.

Compost bins in New York City.
(Hell Gate)

Last year, the City announced a plan to expand compost collection to all five boroughs, and added individual compost drop-off sites on many city corners, while at the same time slashing the budget for the preexisting and wildly successful programs run by the NYC Compost Project (a nonprofit coalition of GrowNYC, Earth Matter, Big Reuse, the Lower East Side Ecology Center and four botanical gardens). Despite a cash infusion by an anonymous donor which kept the NYC Compost Project alive past the end of last year, when their funding was cut, these programs are now officially set to end by mid-May

The differences between two programs are stark. The NYC Compost Project turns some 4,000 tons of organic waste it collects at farmers markets and elsewhere into compost every year, which in turn can be used to improve soil health. The City's program, run by DSNY, turns much of the city's rotting food waste into bioslurry, which is then fed into large "digester eggs" alongside Newtown Creek for processing, and the City says its full fleet digester eggs could eventually handle 500 tons of organic waste per day. That bioslurry ends up becoming two things—mostly it's methane, otherwise known as natural gas, and the little remaining solids become compost for soil (but some of that is currently actually being sent to landfills). Composting done traditionally, like that done by the NYC Compost Project, releases only a negligible amount of methane into the atmosphere.

Another DSNY compost site on Staten Island, which currently processes 1,500 tons of yard waste and Staten Island's organics, is undergoing a huge expansion this year so it can handle more food waste. 

But once its full composting program is rolled out, the City is planning to collect up to over a million tons of organic waste every year for processing—and it is still far short of the processing capacity for that goal. One of the quickest ways for the City to deal with its oncoming onslaught of organics would be to fund pre-existing composting programs like the NYC Compost Project. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening—already decimated by budget cuts, the City is now moving to evict one of its largest natural composting sites

Methane flares in Greenpoint. (Newtown Creek Alliance)

DEP has long insisted that while flaring at the Newtown Creek treatment center isn't ideal (burning methane releases carbon dioxide), it's still better for the environment than letting food waste turn into methane in a landfill (despite the fact that most landfills now have methods to capture methane, which they in turn sell to natural gas companies).

As the City collects more and more bioslurry to be turned into methane, the flaring could be taken as a sign that they have more than National Grid can handle, so they have to burn off the excess—something that DEP denies is happening. National Grid did not respond to repeated inquiries as to whether that's the case. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Sanitation told Hell Gate that deliveries of compost to the Waste Management site where it's turned to bioslurry destined for the Newtown Creek facility have continued without interruption. At the same time, the DEP told Hell Gate that the Newtown Creek site is "well within the system’s capacity" for the amount of compost it can handle. 

Even as National Grid has seen its purification project only sporadically function, the company is planning to use the project to earn "environmental attribute credits" from the federal government, which it could then, in turn, sell to companies that are exceeding greenhouse gas emission standards, in order to avoid a penalty. So, in effect, the carbon dioxide being spewed in Greenpoint could also help someone spew greenhouse gasses thousands of miles away as well.

"The project at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant has been repeatedly dysfunctional and National Grid an unreliable partner," Brooklyn Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, who represents the district that includes the treatment plant, told Hell Gate. "I'm concerned these types of initiatives will be used to justify the further cutting of community compost, while National Grid makes money selling renewable tax credits against a system that’s barely worked after years of delay." 

Already a user?Log in

Thanks for reading!

Give us your email address to keep reading two more articles for free

See all subscription options

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Hell Gate

See all posts