Pinelands Commission Delays Reversal of Gas Pipeline Approval

By Pat Johnson | Nov 13, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson STILL PENDING: The Pinelands Commission has jurisdiction over what can and cannot be built through the Pinelands Reserve. To approve energy projects like the SJG natural gas pipeline, they must be needed by communities in the Pinelands.

It was a glitch in technology that kept the Pinelands Commission from voting on a resolution that would rescind approval of the South Jersey Gas Pipeline project through the pinelands. But in what seemed out of character, conservationists, headed by Jeff Tittel, director of the South Jersey Sierra Club, were happy to have the commissioners table it in hopes they would take a crack at rewriting it.

The conservationists said the wording of the resolution was not strong enough and would leave the door open for more litigation.

“I was hoping that one of the saddest chapters in the history of the Pinelands Commission would end today,” said Tittel. “The Sierra Club has litigated this matter but we have concerns with how the resolution is worded … The resolution leaves too much wiggle room for SJG to come back and try to get around the Pinelands Commission. We’d like to see it strengthened.”

The resolution would have withdrawn Pinelands Commission approval for the pipeline, based on the fact that it is no longer needed to power the former coal-fired BL England plant at Beesley’s Point. The new owners of the plant, R.C. Cape May Holdings, have withdrawn the plan to re-power the aging plant using natural gas. The plant had used coal to generate electricity but was decommissioned in 2019.

The last paragraph of the resolution states, “Because the project has significantly changed, i.e. it will no longer serve BL England, the submitted application no longer addresses the Forest Area Public Infrastructure standard of the Pinelands CMP (Comprehensive Management Plan). As a result, SJG may not proceed with the project.”

Other speakers during the public comment period echoed Tittel’s concerns that SJG would be back with another application.

Policy advocate Rhyan Grech of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance said that a resolution on the issue that came before the commission in April had much stronger language. “It said the project was not consistent with the CMP, and therefore invalid,” said Grech. “It was much stronger language.”

She wondered out loud why that April resolution that was tabled had been rewritten. “The one today, is subject to challenge (in the courts).”

But it was the failure of technology that led the commission to table the second resolution.

During the Nov. 8 Pinelands Commission meeting, two commission members were attending the meeting by phone and either had delayed transmission of the meeting or couldn’t hear what was going on.

Finally, policy chairmen Mark Lohbauer proposed to postpone voting on the resolution because, “Two people don’t have a clear understanding of what’s happening in this room.” The commission then had no quorum for a vote.

The controversial plan by SJG to run a natural gas pipeline through 15 miles of the pinelands, including parts of the sensitive forest area, was proposed in 2015 and, despite protests, received approval from Pinelands Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenburg. The Sierra Club, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and Environment New Jersey then appealed the decision.

— Pat Johnson

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