Pinelands Commission Votes to Approve Controversial Pipeline Plan
CHERRY HILL — The Pinelands Commission voted Friday morning to approve a natural gas pipeline that runs through the state's federally protected Pinelands region.
The Commission approved the plan 9-6 during a loud meeting at the Crowne Plaza in Cherry Hill in which opponents of the plan disrupted the vote with chants of "do the right thing" and "no no no" while breaking into song when a commissioner voted against the plan.
After the vote, the crowds repeatedly said "shame shame shame on you."
Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the commission "sold out" the Pinelands and the people of the state.
"They took the side of South Jersey Gas over doing their job and protecting the Pinelands. This shameful and unlawful approval is to allow a dirty and dangerous pipeline through the Forest Preservation Area in the Pinelands," Tittel wrote.
He said the vote the "biggest threat to the Pinelands since the Pinelands Act was passed 40 years ago" and called it "Bridgegate in the Pines."
“This entire process was a sham from the very beginning. The Commission never had a real public hearing or the right to cross-examine or bring in witnesses. The only ‘hearing’ they had was a façade since half the people couldn’t get in. (Commissioner) Nancy Wittenberg put out her letter full of lies and misinformation after the close of public comment, meaning we can’t even refute her ‘alternative facts.’"
Lena Smith, of the organization Food & Water Watch, praised opponents who sang and chanted at the meeting.
"Today’s vote is just the latest in a series illegitimate actions taken by Gov. Christie and endorsed by politicians like Democratic leader (Senate President) Steve Sweeney. They have meddled in this process to serve corporate interests and their friends in the oil and gas industries," Smith wrote in a statement.
Tittel said his and other environmental groups plan to challenge the approval in court on numerous procedural and factual grounds, hoping to delay it long enough for New Jersey's next governor to appoint Pinelands commissioners that will reverse the decision. Republican Gov. Chris Christie's successor will be elected in November.
South Jersey Gas after the vote said it "recognizes the energy reliability challenges facing southern New Jersey and the balanced solution this project offers. The careful construction of this pipeline will address the energy demands of 142,000 customers in Cape May and Atlantic counties, protect and create jobs, and provide a meaningful opportunity to significantly reduce air emissions."
The plan was narrowly defeated in 2014. But since then, Christie has replaced several Pinelands commissioners with supporters of the pipeline.
The pipeline will run mostly under or alongside existing roads from Maurice River Township in Cumberland County to the B.L. England power plant in Upper Township. The company says it already operates over 1,400 miles of gas mains and 133 miles of elevated pressure lines within the Pinelands without harming the environment.
Environmental groups fear the pipeline will harm the fragile Pinelands and set a bad precedent for future development. They say it will cause a loss of some habitat and increase runoff and erosion in an area that is home to an aquifer that is estimated to hold 17 trillion gallons of some of the nation's purest water.