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Pipeline Views

UPPER TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Some called a hearing Monday before the state Board of Public Utilities on whether to allow South Jersey Gas to build a 22-mile pipeline through the environmentally sensitive Pinelands National Reserve the most important forum “in the history of the Pinelands.”

Others, however, called the meeting just one more in a “rigged system” that “caters to special interests” in the protracted battle over whether the gas utility should be permitted to construct the underground pipeline that would supply natural gas to the B.L. England Generating Station in the Beesleys Point section of Upper Township, Cape May County, from a site in Maurice River Township, Cumberland County.

South Jersey Gas says that under a state Department of Environmental Protection mandate, it needs the pipeline to convert the generating station from a coal- and oil-fired plant to a natural gas plant — or be forced to close it.

In January 2014, the Pinelands Commission voted, 7-7 with one recusal, to reject South Jersey Gas’ request as a public utility to build about 10 miles of the pipeline through parts of the protected Pinelands in Atlantic County where such infrastructure is barred. Previously, the utility had filed as a private development but was rejected by the commission because it said the pipeline would not primarily serve Pinelands residents.

But after South Jersey Gas resubmitted its application over the summer as a private development — indicating the pipeline would indeed serve regional residents by providing a backup utility system for Atlantic and Cape May Counties — the executive director of the Pinelands Commission, Nancy Wittenberg, gave the utility approval for the pipeline, saying it didn’t actually need the approval of the entire commission to proceed. The move then volleyed final approval of the matter to the Board of Public Utilities.

The BPU could decide as early as next month whether to approve the project.

This month, environmental activist Steven Fenichel of Ocean City filed a 12-page complaint against Wittenberg with the New Jersey State Ethics Commission, alleging her actions “indicate a serious breach of integrity and ethical standards” by establishing a pattern of abuse of power regarding the pipeline.

Fenichel noted in his complaint that Wittenberg had given sole approval for the pipeline on the grounds that it was a private development, despite the fact that a year earlier the full commission had a deadlocked vote on the grounds that the project was, instead, a public development.

He also said there was a “trail of emails” from 2014 that indicate the Pinelands Commission recommended a second pipeline that New Jersey Natural Gas asked to build in a more northern section of the reserve that would allegedly have a better chance of Pinelands approval.

The pattern, Fenichel said in his complaint, ultimately “undermines the public confidence in the Pinelands Commission and the respect the staff within the agency has for Mrs. Wittenberg’s leadership.”

Wittenberg did not appear at Monday’s hearing. The commission members in attendance made no public comment about the matter. About 75 members of the public, both pro- and anti-pipeline, were present.

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Proponents say repowering the station as a natural-gas-generating plant would provide a cleaner output for the site while providing a backup power source for about 140,000 electric and gas utility customers in the region. They contend it would also provide about 100 permanent jobs and hundreds of temporary construction jobs as the plant is refitted.

But environmentalists urge the BPU to reject the construction application, contending the pipeline would cut through one of the most ecologically sensitive environments on the East Coast and become the largest producer of greenhouse gases in South Jersey. It would ultimately promote fracking and pollution, they said.

Besides being a unique, biodiverse open space, the Pinelands harbors 17 trillion gallons of water in its aquifer and is the largest undeveloped area on the Northeastern seaboard.

A decision to allow construction of the pipeline, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, is not just about the line itself, but the possible undoing of a successful growth management plan within the Pinelands and the resulting threat to a U.N. Biosphere Reserve known for its biodiversity.

The pipeline could cause irreversible harm to wetlands and streams, damage important open space, and threaten the drinking-water supply, Tittel told the BPU at the hearing Monday.

“We believe there have been serious concerns and problems with this application from the beginning,” Tittel said. “But, ultimately, this is the most important decision by the BPU in the history of the Pinelands and the BPU needs to reject the pipeline or it needs to let the Pinelands Commission have the vote. . . . This whole process is a sham.”

Georgina Shanley, an environmental activist from Ocean City, said numerous hearings on the matter had called for public comment but “ultimately it is like talking to a wall.”

“The public has spoken and said we do not want this pipeline . . . but we have minimal impact,” Shanley testified. “It really is a rigged system. It’s a shame because it creates a real hopelessness with people.”

But Rick Jackson, executive director of the New Jersey Energy Coalition, which he said includes 55 members from a broad spectrum of organizations, including those with environmental interests, supports the pipeline.

“In our view, the pipeline clearly meets our guiding principle for the provision of a backup source of energy for the communities we serve. We recommend the BPU find that it is in the public interest to approve this pipeline,” Jackson said.

Debra P. DiLorenzo, president of the South Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the project was important to the economics of the region.

“This project will provide energy resiliency to 142,000 residents and businesses, and our organization fully supports it,” DiLorenzo said. “We learned through Hurricane Sandy that any interruption of energy service over a sustained period of time is devastating to the region.”

This article was written by Jacqueline L. Urgo from The Philadelphia Inquirer and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.