The bad news keeps piling up for the PennEast pipeline project.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection notified the developer its application for a wetlands permit was deficient in a number of ways, once again delaying a project that has encountered numerous setbacks in regulatory reviews on both the state and the federal levels.
The letter from the DEP requesting additional information from the PennEast Pipeline Co., LLC is potentially very significant, since it could push review of key permits from the state agency into 2018 — a goal foes have been seeking as the term of Gov. Chris Christie winds down.
“This letter could slow down the project for at least a year until there is a new administration and a new governor,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, one of many conservation groups opposing the 120-mile pipeline from Luzerne County, PA, to Mercer County.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers advised the company its application for a permit was incomplete for virtually the same reason cited by the DEP. The company has failed to secure permission from property owners to conduct surveys on portions of the proposed route.
In the DEP letter, the state said it is clear the applicant does not yet have legal authority to do the necessary surveys — either through landowner permission or eminent domain. PennEast cannot obtain the latter authority unless the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issues a certificate of approval for the project, which it has not done.
The lack of either authority poses a problem for the DEP, according to Bob Considine, a spokesman.
“Without owner consent or the authority to condemn, DEP has no independent authority to access properties to validate the applicant information,’’ he said. “Additionally, without site-specific information, DEP is unable to determine what, if any, detrimental environmental impacts there are to the project.’’
Patricia Kornick, a spokesperson for PennEast, characterized the DEP letter as another step in the permitting process. “As evidenced by the few outstanding items, which PennEast is working to address, PennEast believes it is a strong application that is substantially complete,’’ she said. The company hopes to begin construction on the project sometime in 2018.
Tittel, however, viewed the DEP action as a “major setback, no matter how PennEast tries to spin it.’’ Besides failing to map and delineate wetlands along the route, the company also needs to gain access to the main streams and waterways the proposed pipeline would cross, he said.
In its letter, DEP noted the applicant only provided information for approximately 35 percent of the proposed 37 miles of the route.
Another opponent of the project, Tom Gilbert, campaign director for Rethink Energy NJ and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, also called the DEP response a significant setback for the applicant, but added the department should have denied the permit outright.
“It fails to meet the basic procedural requirements under law that allow DEP to review it — especially their lack of legal rights to most of the properties in question,’’ Gilbert said.
In addition to the wetlands permit, PennEast also will require a water-quality permit from the DEP under the federal Clean Water Act, as well as regulatory reviews by other agencies, including the Delaware River Basin Commission.