A state agency yesterday approved a new natural-gas pipeline through preservation areas of the Pinelands, despite some of its own commissioners arguing that doing so would ignore protections for the 1-million-acre preserve.
The Pinelands Commission vote took place during a raucous meeting in a packed War Memorial building in Trenton, where the public frequently interrupted staff and commissioners with whistles, shouts, and even cowbells.
In the end, however, the commission went along with the recommendation of its executive director, Nancy Wittenberg, who argued the 30-mile pipeline conforms with the commission’s Comprehensive Management Plan, a view that is contested by opponents who are already in court challenging the pipeline.
Her original determination that the project, dubbed the Southern Reliability Line, complied with the plan without commission action led to a challenge of her decision. It was eventually remanded back to the commission to act by a state appeals court.
The project by New Jersey Natural Gas is the second pipeline through the Pinelands approved by the commission over strong opposition from conservationists. Earlier, the commission approved a 22-mile pipeline to the B.L. England plant in northern Cape May, a project also entangled in the courts.
The pipeline, touted as enhancing reliability for the utility’s customers, runs across the state, starting in Chesterfield Township, crossing a part of the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, before ending in Manchester Township.
Opponents have argued the pipeline is unnecessary, and could be built for a fraction of the $180 million cost by building an alternative far from the protected Pinelands area. New Jersey Natural Gas noted the project was deemed a reasonable and effective alternative by the state Board of Public Utilities, which also approved the project.
Four commissioners voted against the project, saying it runs afoul of the Comprehensive Management Plan.
“Once again, the commission is being asked to ignore our sworn oaths to protect the Pinelands,’’ said Candace Ashmun, a longtime commissioner and a highly regarded conservationist. “I see no good coming from this project.’’
Mark Lohbauer, a fellow commissioner, agreed, citing passages from the plan underlining the importance of safeguarding the preservation area from development. “This is a very clear mandate to us to protect this area,’’ Lohbauer said.
“We are pleased with the outcome,’’ said Michael Kinney, a spokesman for New Jersey Gas. The SRL provides redundancy for the utility by constructing a second feeder system, he said.
After the vote, opponents vowed to press their opposition in court. Besides the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the New Jersey Sierra Club, Bordentown, and Chesterfield have appealed permits the state Department of Environmental Protection and the BPU have given the project.
After the vote on the pipeline, the commission approved a resolution aimed at limiting damage caused by off-road vehicles (ORVs) in the heart of the Pinelands. The ORVs have long been blamed for eroding soil, disrupting waterways, and threatening plant and wildlife.
The resolution adopts a map designating sand roads that can be used by the vehicles while reducing access to other more-sensitive areas. The action won grudging praise from many of those who came to oppose the pipeline.
“You can fix trails, but you can’t fix climate change and the destruction of aquifers,’’ Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club, told the commissioners.