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National Grid Wants to Raise Heat Bills to Pay for Gowanus Canal Cleanup

By Leslie Albrecht | December 13, 2016 5:11pm
 Debris removal on the Gowanus Canal. National Grid wants to tack a 2 percent surcharge onto customers' bills to help pay for its portion of the Gowanus Canal cleanup.
Debris removal on the Gowanus Canal. National Grid wants to tack a 2 percent surcharge onto customers' bills to help pay for its portion of the Gowanus Canal cleanup.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

GOWANUS — State regulators will vote Thursday on whether to let National Grid dump the cost of the Gowanus Canal cleanup on its customers, a move that advocates and elected officials say puts an unfair burden on ratepayers.

If the Public Service Commission approves National Grid's proposal, the typical heat bill would jump by about $9.40 starting in January, Karen Young, a spokeswoman for the utility said.

On top of that, National Grid wants to tack a 2 percent surcharge onto customers' monthly bills starting in 2018 to cover the utility's portion of the cleanup costs for the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek Superfund sites.

National Grid doesn't know yet how much those cleanups will cost, a spokeswoman said, but researchers with the Public Utility Law Project, which opposes National Grid's proposed bill hike, say the company will have to shell out about $800 million, and it wants its customers to pay all of that.

Though a 2 percent surcharge may seem relatively "manageable," customers could be paying the extra fee for years to come, said Bill Yates, director of research for PULP.

"Because of the vastness of the anticipated costs to do all this cleanup work on the Superfund sites, this charge is going to be paid for an indefinite future, perhaps a decade or more by ratepayers,” Yates said.

National Grid says the rate increase will allow the company to modernize gas infrastructure and enhance "safety and reliability" and that the surcharge will "satisfy our remediation responsibilities and further our commitment to environmental stewardship," spokeswoman Karen Young said.

Local resident Katia Kelly said passing the entire cost of the cleanup on to customers now was "shameful" because National Grid has had years to plan for the cleanup costs.

"Basically what they’re saying to the communities who've been living with the toxic sites they left behind is, 'We’re going to screw you even more,'" said Kelly, who's been tracking the canal cleanup for years on her blog.

"It's hypocritical for them to plead poverty or hardship when they fully well knew when they bought Brooklyn Union Gas that they were responsible for these cleanups,” Kelly said.

National Grid is responsible for paying much of the cleanup costs for the toxin-riddled waterway because it bought the companies (KeySpan and Brooklyn Union Gas) that fouled the canal with industrial waste decades ago. The federal government's $506 million Superfund cleanup of the canal is based on the "polluter pays" principle, meaning that the companies that did the environmental damage must pay to repair it.

In Gowanus, National Grid and the City of New York are the two biggest "responsible parties," according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. National Grid is also on the hook for expensive cleanups of three properties fronting the canal under a state-led environmental cleanup program.

"It is a simple question of fundamental fairness," said PULP executive director Richard Berkley, adding that seniors, disabled people and low-income households are still recovering from the economic downturn. "That is why, among other reasons, the company’s proposal to place 100 percent of the cleanup of its Superfund sites upon customers should be rejected."

PULP joined with the AARP and the City Council's Progressive Caucus to demand that the Public Service Commission deny National Grid's proposed bill hike, which was first reported by the New York Daily News.

The bill increase is likely to pass, Berkley said, because the PSC's staff has recommended that the commission approve it.

National Grid's spokeswoman said the company's proposal calls for low-income households to be automatically enrolled in customer assistance programs to help alleviate the strain of the increased bills.

"The provisions of the [rate increase proposal] governing the recovery of [environmental] remediation expenses are fully consistent with NYPSC policy and precedent," National Grid spokeswoman Karen Young said.

"There are many other parties involved in the future cleanup of the Gowanus Canal Superfund site, costs have not been allocated and all responsible parties must do their part and pay their fair share."

Local activist Linda Mariano, co-founder of Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, said residents have long anticipated a National Grid rate hike, but it still angers community members.

"They purchased these properties knowing full well what they were getting into and they have to be responsible,” Mariano said. "I don't mind contributing to the Superfund cleanup, we want it, we want clean water, but the government can't just let National Grid get away with this. They must pay their fair share."

The PSC meeting where commissioners will vote on the National Grid rate increase is scheduled for 10:30 a.m., Dec. 15, 90 Church St. The public must notify building management in advance if they want to attend. Contact PULP for details on how. The meeting will also be broadcast live online here.