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Two ‘Green’ Groups File Suit Against BPU Over Approval of Pipeline in Pinelands

Action is latest flare-up in longstanding battle over converting B.L. England power plant from coal to natural gas

B.L. England power plant
B.L. England power plant

The approval of a controversial 22-mile natural-gas pipeline through the core of the Pinelands has triggered a lawsuit against the Board of Public Utilities, the commission charged with overseeing the international biosphere and state utility regulators.

The New Jersey Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey yesterday announced they would challenge the decisions that led to the authorization of a South Jersey Gas project to build a pipeline through the preserve to the B.L. England plant in Beesley’s Point in Cape May.

The project, approved by the state BPU in December after a prolonged multiyear battle, is perhaps the most controversial of more than a dozen gas-pipeline projects to be proposed in New Jersey.

Besides environmental and conservation groups, the pipeline drew opposition from four former governors, two Republican and a pair of Democrats. The primary objections centered on the route, which would cross through some of the most protected land in the 1 million acres Pinelands National Reserve.

“Forty years after passage of the Pinelands Act, we are trying to save the Pinelands again,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club in announcing the legal challenge, which had been expected. “What we are seeing is a dismantling of the Pinelands step by step by the Christie administration.’’

The announcement of the lawsuit came a day after the BPU gave preliminary approval to still another gas-pipeline project by New Jersey Natural Gas, which also crosses through the Pinelands. If that project moves forward, Tittel vowed it, too, would be challenged in the courts.

Still, the litigation faces big hurdles since state courts generally give deference to departments’ and agencies’ expertise in matters of policy and technical issues related to implementation.

The South Jersey project finally won approval after a protracted fight, one that conservationists initially blocked when it first came up before the Pinelands Commission in January 2012. At the time, the commission split evenly on a plan to pave the way for the pipeline.

The pipeline was revived after Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands commission, wrote a letter, in essence, determining the project was a “private development’’ that did not need to be approved by the commission.

The BPU final approval followed, with commissioners ruling the project as reasonably necessary, one that would allow the power plant to run on a cleaner source of fuel than the coal it once burned. The Christie administration wants to shut down coal plants and switch to natural gas as the fuel to generate electricity, a policy it says will promote greater reliability and cleaner air.

In trying to block the new pipeline, the environmental groups are relying most on technical claims, the primary one arguing that the staff letter saying the project is consistent with the commission’s Comprehensive Management Plan is a violation of the Pinelands Protection Act.

They argue that the primary rationale behind the pipeline is to supply natural gas to the power plant; it does not serve the needs of the Pinelands and thus, violates the plan. They also contend that continued operation of the plant is unnecessary and unneeded to maintain reliability of the power grid.

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