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Christie Administration Green-Lights Controversial Highlands Gas Pipeline -- Again

Environmental groups warn of degraded water quality and invasive species in undeveloped Newark watershed forest.

The state yesterday cleared the way once again for a natural gas pipeline through the heart of the New Jersey Highlands, this time on eight acres of watershed property owned by the city of Newark.

In a hour-long meeting at the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Watershed Property Review Board voted 3-0 with little debate to grant an exemption to Tennessee Gas Pipeline to put a new 30-inch underground gas pipeline, mostly along an existing pipeline stretching from Wanaque to West Milford.

The approval came despite warnings from four conservation groups the project would degrade water quality in perhaps the state’s most important watershed and introduce invasive species of plants into the last remaining undeveloped hardwood forest tract in northern New Jersey.

It is the second time this year the Christie administration has given the okay to the company to expand its pipeline through the Highlands. The Statehouse Commission previously approved a 23-mile extension of the line through two state parks and a wildlife management area.

Violating the Public Trust?

Conservationists are upset that lands previously set aside in public trust are being exploited by utilities. That includes a controversial transmission line being pushed by Public Service Electric & Gas and PJM Interconnection, the operator of the regional power grid, through 16 towns in the Highlands. The project won approval from the state Board of Public Utilities earlier this year.

“The Christie administration, as part of their anti-environmental crusade, think the Highlands is a place to slice apart with gas and power lines that not only hurt the water supply, but also allow for more dirty coal and other power being imported from Pennsylvania and elsewhere,’’ said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

In approving the gas pipeline, the staffs of the DEP and BPU increased the compensation the city will receive from $45,000 to $180,000, the identical amount the Statehouse Commission set for approving the lease of lands through the two state parks and wildlife management area. They wanted to ensure the city gets the same amount of money for leasing its land as the state did.

Preventing Environmental Damage

The agencies’ staff also imposed tougher conditions on the company to prevent soil erosion and protect the wetlands. It also directed it to make up the 8 acres the pipeline will traverse with 36 acres of replacement land.

Steve Dalton, a lawyer representing Tennessee Gas, had urged the board to grant the exemption, noting the project had won a certificate of convenience and of need from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which concluded there was a “compelling public need” for it.

In urging approval for the project, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin noted he had followed the development of the proposal closely and was satisfied it was needed. “I’m comfortable with the work plans which are in place to protect water quality,” Martin said, adding the compensation the city would receive was “fair.’’

The two other commissioners voted yes without comment. They were BPU President Lee Solomon and Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Lori Grifa.

In urging the project be delayed, Emil DeVito, manager of science for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, noted the special significance of the Newark watershed forest, saying it is one of the few areas in New Jersey not to be overrun by invasive species. He urged the project be delayed until the developer is required to establish an escrow account to be tapped when invasive species appear on watershed lands.

Tittel opposed the exemption, saying the developer does not have plans in place that are adequate to control runoff, which could wash into streams and lakes that supply water to residents.

Dave Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, agreed. “This land is held in public trust, not for a private utility,’’ he said. “You cannot expand a pipeline through these lands without having an impact on water quality.’’

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