Business and labor groups made one more pitch Monday in favor of a natural-gas pipeline through the Pinelands to the state Board of Public Utilities -- and opponents offered some hints of how they could force a showdown in the courts.
The public hearing late Monday was the last before the BPU and state Pinelands Commission officials once again approve the recently resurrected plan for South Jersey Gas to build a 22-mile pipeline to enable reconstruction and repowering of the obsolete B.L. England coal-fired power station in Cape May County.
Pinelands commissioners first blocked the pipeline project in a January 2014 tie vote. But South Jersey Gas -- with bipartisan political backing from the Christie administration and South Jersey lawmakers -- brought its plan back this summer, newly reclassified as a “private development” that could pass muster without a vote by the Pinelands board.
But critics say the project’s convoluted history -- with the BPU at one point acting as the project applicant before the Pinelands Commission, rather than South Jersey Gas, and utility regulators now in the position of approving it themselves -- is just begging for a court challenge.
“BPU has approved this project three times,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who argues that the BPU and Pinelands Commission are still bound by an earlier 2013 agreement over the plan. “This should go back to the Pinelands Commission for a vote by the commissioners.”
“You’re regulating and applying at the same time … Do you think we’re stupid?” said Georgina Shanley, a longtime pipeline opponent from Ocean City.
A crowd of roughly 75 in the Upper Township municipal building appeared about evenly split between pipeline critics and supporters, the latter including workers from the building trades and union officials. They say the pipeline and power plant will boost the economy in a region still reeling from Atlantic City’s setbacks with the collapse of the Revel resort project, casino closings, and layoffs.
“It’s a good project. It’s going to create jobs for Cape May and Atlantic County people,” said Ray Phillips, president of Ironworkers Local 350 in Atlantic City.
“Help us keep our jobs,” said Michael Zarrillo, an electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 351.
While those supporters focused on economics, critics from environmental groups and residents along the pipeline route warned that the plan is a step toward dismantling the regional Pinelands plan that has kept nearly 1 million acres of forest, farms, and small towns almost intact for 35 years.
“The political influences are a real concern in this project,” said environmental activist Margo Pellegrino of Medford Lakes. Pinelands commissioners and staffers have been under intense pressure from Trenton officials, she said.
The first problem facing the pipeline was its route through a forest-area zone, the second-strictest set of land-use controls set up under the 1979 Pinelands Protection Act. Like other environmental legislation in the 1970s, it was drawn with an eye to the possibility in that decade of offshore oil and gas drilling along the New Jersey coast, and lawmakers wanted control over how a new energy industry would develop.
That led to a rule against new gas and oil transmission pipelines in the forest area, unless they serve local residents. South Jersey Gas and its supporters argue the plan meets that criteria, but opponents say the B.L. England plant as primary user lies outside the Pinelands.
South Jersey Gas looked at eight pipeline routes, and the state Department of Environmental Protection “confirmed this route is the most environmentally preferable,” said Dan Lockwood, manager of stakeholder relations for SJG.
As for building the pipeline -- after approvals are obtained and legal appeals are exhausted -- “In terms of getting contracts completed it would take about 18 months,” Lockwood said.
The environmental groups will push those appeals because they see the pipeline setting a precedent for dismantling other Pinelands rules with future exemptions, says Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
“The precedent problem is so much worse now in the manner it is being obtained,”, in August after Pinelands Commission executive director Nancy Wittenberg revealed the pipeline would move forward without the commissioners’ approval.
Wittenbergthat commissioners needed to vote on the pipeline as a public project, and declared the pipeline a private development project that need only pass muster with her staff.
The project stalled after Pinelands commissioners deadlocked in a 7-7 tie vote in January 2014 -- a meeting that was held despite a dangerous ice and snow storm that made travel to the commission’s rural Pemberton Township offices hazardous. It was a signal of how much pressure was on commissioners from the Christie administration, project backers, and pipeline opponents.
Christie’s political fortunes had taken a hit in the weeks before, from allegations his aides orchestrated lane closings at the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee. As the South Jersey Gas plan lay dormant for months after, the administration moved to change the balance of power among commissioners. Then in July 2015, the BPU.
Under Pinelands rules, private developments should be reviewed by local municipal land-use boards, under ordinances that incorporate the Pinelands standards, said environmental activist Bill Wolfe of Bordentown.
But the regulators’ recent moves on the gas line have led to the “absurd outcome” of the BPU having a final say without local reviews, Wolfe said.
Kirk Moore is a New Jersey native who has been reporting and writing about the state for more than 30 years. As a reporter for the Asbury Park Press, Moore covered environmental, ocean, and military issues. He was a 2011 winner of the Online News Association's Knight Award for Public Service for the 2010 series “Barnegat Bay Under Stress” that helped push state and federal agencies to restore the bay’s ecological health. He lives in West Creek.