Embattled South Jersey Gas Pipeline Plan Clears Hurdle

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Geoff Mulvihill

A contentious plan to build a natural gas pipeline has received a boost as it goes for a second time before the commission that regulates development in the New Jersey Pinelands.

The Pinelands Commission staff on Friday gave the project a certificate of filing, which shows that the application from South Jersey Gas is complete and consistent with rules for developments in the protected area of the state.

Now, it’s subject to approval from the state Board of Public Utilities before heading back to the Pinelands Commission staff for a review, said Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands Commission, whose members are appointed by local, state and federal officials.

The Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter is upset that the process does not include Pinelands Commissions public hearings and a promise of a vote of the full commission.

“This is the Pearl Harbor of the Pinelands. This was a sneak attack by Wittenberg to push this destructive pipeline through the Pinelands,” Jeff Tittel, who runs the environmental group’s New Jersey chapter, said in a statement. “Under her determination, there will be no public hearing, input or vote by the Pinelands Commission.”

Carlton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, an advocacy group, called Friday’s action “bizarre,” noting the commission previously found the same plan violated the commission’s rules.

“Now the executive director is simply reversing her own prior findings. This action is a severe blow to the integrity of the Pinelands Commission,” Montgomery said in a statement.

The line would run from Maurice River Township in Cumberland County to the BL England plant in Upper Township in Cape May County and would cut across a portion of the Pinelands National Reserve, which comprises more than 1 million acres. Environmentalists warn that the pipeline could cause pollution, threaten wildlife and habitats and set a precedent for allowing further development in a sensitive area.

Last year, the commission stalemated 7-7, blocking the project. That time though, the matter went before the entire board because Wittenberg’s staff found the application had an inconsistency: It didn’t make clear whether all the gas flowing through it would be used in the area.

South Jersey Gas applied again earlier this year.

Wittenberg said it’s getting different treatment this time because South Jersey Gas included in its application a copy of a contract showing that all the gas in the pipeline would be bought by the BL England plant.

She said in a telephone interview that it’s still possible the project could be brought to a vote of the full Pinelands Commission if inconsistencies are found after the BPU approval process.

AP writer Michael Catalini contributed to this report.

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