With a crucial vote set for Friday, conservationists rallied outside the State House yesterday in a bid to halt the approval of a controversial and much-litigated pipeline through parts of the Pinelands.
A few dozen environmentalists renewed their opposition to the 22-mile pipeline, which will allow the B.L. England power plant at Beesley’s Point to convert from coal to natural gas in a proposal that has been before the Pinelands Commission for six years.
The project is the most contentious issue to emerge in the Pinelands, a more than 1-million-acre preserve set aside four decades ago to protect a vast, mostly unbroken forest sitting above one of the largest aquifers in the region. It has drawn opposition from four former governors, two former executive directors of the commission, and virtually all of the state’s environmental community.
The agency initially balked at approving the project, which fails to comply with its own Comprehensive Management Plan. Nancy Wittenberg, its executive director, last week issued a 24-page letter recommending the commission approve the plan, reversing a previous staff determination based on new documentation submitted into the record.
Whatever decision emerges from what is expected to be a packed meeting in Cherry Hill, the issue is likely to wind up back in court, which reversed a prior ruling by Wittenberg endorsing the project pushed by South Jersey Gas. A state appeals court kicked the issue back to the full commission.
In making a case to reject the proposal, environmentalists yesterday blamed political interference from Gov. Chris Christie for refusing to allow the project to die.
“The South Jersey Gas pipeline does not meet the standards in the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan and regardless of political influence, the commissioners need to do what is right and support the regulations,’’ said Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “The Pinelands commissioners took an oath to protect the Pinelands and they need to uphold the rules of the CMP.’’
“Friday is probably the most important vote in its 40-year history,’’ added Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Together we are in Trenton telling the governor and his cronies that they must protect the Pinelands and the people of New Jersey.’’
The project, touted as helping supply the power needs of the people who live in the Pinelands, is backed by most business interests, many legislators, and organized labor. If the project is not built, the B.L. England plant will have to shut down under a consent decree with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Opponents argue that besides failing to comply with the CMP, the pipeline isn’t necessary and would not serve the needs of the Pinelands. They also say that it threatens the acquifer underlying the region, points disputed by Wittenberg in her letter.
“This is a battle about the independence of commissions,’’ argued Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.