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Catsimatidis to turn grease into gold with Greenpoint biodiesel plant

Permit pending for long-delayed facility on Newtown Creek that would transform food oil into vehicle fuel

New York City’s first large-scale biodiesel fuel production facility is slated to come to Greenpoint, courtesy of former Republican mayoral candidate and Gristedes magnate John Catsimatidis.

Catsimatidis-owned United Biofuels is seeking approval from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for a permit to convert an existing fuel-storage facility on Newtown Creek to take vegetable oil and turn it into fuel that can power diesel-burning vehicles.

John Catsimatidis toured his new acquisition while on the campaign trail: A soon-to-be biofuel plant on the Newtown Creek. Photo: Arthur Rosenfield/OurLIC.com

John Catsimatidis toured his new acquisition while on the campaign trail: A soon-to-be biofuel plant on the Newtown Creek. Photo: Arthur Rosenfield/OurLIC.com

Catsimatidis seized the opportunity to acquire the biodiesel operation in the midst of his 2013 campaign, buying it from bankrupt Metro Fuel Oil Corporation and promising to preserve 130 employees’ jobs.

“We wanted to buy a piece of it,” Catsimatidis said in a phone interview. “Before we knew it, we owned the entire thing. By accident, we bought it.”

Metro Fuel Oil had been granted $10 million in bond financing and other benefits from the New York City Industrial Development Agency in 2007 to construct the biodiesel facility but went bust before it could finish the job.

Catsimatidis, who serves as the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the recently formed United Metro Energy Corp., said the Greenpoint facility — set to produce between 40 and 50 million gallons of biodiesel per year — would be one of the largest in the country.

The Greenpoint outpost is just part of the growing Catsimatidis energy empire. Metro also has a biodiesel facility in Calverton, Long Island, and his his United Refining owns and operates an oil refinery in Warren, Penn., that produces about 70,000 barrels a day. The company sells its fuel in about 400 retail outlets in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

“Hopefully it’ll be finished before the end of the year,” Catsimatidis said of the New York City biodiesel plant. “The community is all for it.”

As initially proposed in 2007, the biodiesel plant would have produced almost twice the amount of biodiesel as currently planned. But the basic operation remains the same: turning biological feedstock — which can include used vegetable oil, or soybeans or corn — into fuel, via a catalyzed chemical reaction between the oil and methanol.

Because the production facility is located in an industrial neighborhood, and next to the busy Greenpoint Ave. Bridge over the creek, community members said they expect it won’t add too much truck traffic.

“This facility is essentially taking industrial wasteland and turning it into a productive use of the land,” said Richard Mazur, executive director of the North Brooklyn Development Corporation, a community improvement group.

Mazur, who has lived in Greenpoint since 1950, remembers a “most horrible smell” emanating from Newtown Creek during his childhood in Greenpoint, when oil refineries lined its banks.

“I can tell you that my nose is happier today than it was when I was a child,” Mazur said.

Members of several Greenpoint community groups — including the Newtown Creek Alliance, Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee and Greenpoint Waterfront Associations for Parks and Planning — said they weren’t aware of the pending permit and were still determining what it could mean for their community.

Catsimatidis said he received positive feedback from area residents about the proposal during his campaign.

“Don’t forget, I was running for mayor,” he said, “I was all over Brooklyn.”

Not every stakeholder in the community is sold. Michael Heimbinder, who sits on the board of the Newtown Creek Alliance but spoke in his role as executive director of the Brooklyn environmental nonprofit HabitatMap, said he is skeptical about the biodiesel industry.

“I’m concerned about this facility,” Heimbinder said, adding that emissions from both the plant and added trucks to the area would be bad for air quality.

“Is it a clean fuel?” Heimbinder said, “I’d say unequivocally: no.”

Biodiesel, when used by motorized vehicles, is about half as polluting as petroleum diesel, said Prof. Richard Parnas of the Biofuel Consortium at the University of Connecticut. “Emissions are very, very low.”

Parnas said residents in the area do not have to fear that the biodiesel plant will emit a smell.

“If the facility is well designed and well run, there should be very little if any odor,” Parnas said. “They don’t have to worry about clouds of noxious fumes. That’s not what biodiesel refineries do.”

While the end product is better for the environment than conventional diesel, the process of making the fuel still uses chemicals that can be dangerous, such as methanol.

“It should be permitted and handled like any industrial facility is handled,” Parnas said. “Biodiesel production is among the less hazardous types. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect.”

The permit — which is open for public review until April 4 —will allow the company to “install equipment for biodiesel fuel purification, methanol recovery, wastewater treatment and vapor control.”

The facility sits on the former location of an ExxonMobil refinery and adjoins the Newtown Creek Superfund hazardous waste cleanup project supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Leah Archibald, the executive director of the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corporation, said she welcomes the facility to the area and called it a “win-win.”

“There’s so much food production here,” she said. “It makes sense to have a facility in New York City.”

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