After more than 40 years of being in the minority, Democrats seized control of Burlington County’s governing body this month, and already have joined the fray over a natural gas pipeline that opponents say threatens the Pinelands, a federally protected million-acre tract in New Jersey.

The new majority on the Freeholder Board is calling for Sean Earlen, chairman of the Pinelands Commission, to step down or be ousted, saying he has a conflict of interest and is beholden to the Republican Party. Earlen, who was appointed by the board’s previous GOP majority and named chairman by then-Gov. Chris Christie, helped push through the $180 million Southern Reliability Link pipeline, which cuts through the protected area.

Last week, Earlen said he would not resign. “My term is up at the end of 2020, and I don’t believe there is a conflict," said Earlen, who was recently named the head of the county’s Republican committee.

The 30-mile-long, 30-inch pipeline was approved in September 2017 but is still quite contentious, as shown by the hundreds who go to meetings to protest against it.

Work on the project quietly began in Plumsted Township late last month, but multiple lawsuits are pending and more are being filed as the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and Sierra Club challenge the pipeline, saying that it would harm the environmentally sensitive preserve and that an alternate route should be considered. The environmental groups also argue that irregularities and conflicts of interest marred the approval process.

Chesterfield Township Mayor Rita Romeu (left) and environmentalist Glenn Ashton walk through a wooded area near the pipeline construction project.
CHARLES FOX
Chesterfield Township Mayor Rita Romeu (left) and environmentalist Glenn Ashton walk through a wooded area near the pipeline construction project.

New Jersey Natural Gas Co., which is handling the project, is suing, too, saying the freeholders have imposed too many restrictions on installation of the pipeline, which would go from Chesterfield Township, Burlington County, through parts of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and end in Manchester Township, Ocean County. The gas company representatives say the pipeline is needed to enhance service to South Jersey customers and increase reliability.

“Yes, we are looking at stopping the pipeline," said Tom Pullion, a Democrat newly sworn in as the director of the five-member freeholder board.

In November, Democrats captured two seats, giving the party a 4-1 majority and some oversight over the pipeline, including road closures during the project and appointments to the Pinelands Commission.

Pullion said the board is considering rescinding the action that the lame-duck GOP-controlled board took in late December to allow two county roads to be closed during the duration of the pipe installation. More than 100 people went to the December meeting to oppose the road closures.

Rescinding the authorization to close the roads “could be very significant,” said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “It might make it impossible for them [the gas company] to do it the way they want to do it.... Maybe they would consider a different route less harmful to the Pinelands.”

A red-bellied turtle along the Batsto River in the Pinelands.
File Photograph
A red-bellied turtle along the Batsto River in the Pinelands.

The alliance is suing to overturn the vote, saying two of the three Republicans who participated, former Freeholder Director Kate Gibbs and Freeholder Latham Tiver, should have recused themselves because they work for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825. The union has lobbied for the pipeline and the work it would bring, he said. The vote was 3-2, so without their votes, the authorization would have failed.

Gibbs said she had no conflict “because all we were doing is giving the county engineer another tool in his toolbox to incorporate the road closure in with the permits.” She said she favors the pipeline because it is “necessary for the Joint Base and for our infrastructure ... but I have no financial gain or benefit from the vote.” Tiver could not be reached for comment.

The GOP-controlled board also voted in 2017 to reappoint Earlen to another three-year term on the Pinelands Commission, a 15-member body composed of seven members appointed by the governor, seven by the counties that have territory in the Pinelands, and one by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The commission’s purpose is protect the federal preserve and the trillions of gallons of water in its aquifer and to limit development.

“Here’s a guy who sat on the commission who doesn’t seem to care about the environment and who cares more about business than the residents whose homes are right next to where the pipeline will be,” Pullion said. “There was an alternate route for that pipeline to go without putting trillions of gallons of clean water at risk. Why wouldn’t you do that?”

Pullion said Earlen also has a conflict of interest because he was named the chairman of the county Republican committee this month. “The decisions you make on the commission should serve everyone, and he’s the GOP chair,” he said.

Deputy Freeholder Director Balvir Singh, also a Democrat, said foes of the pipeline have attended several board meetings this month and requested Earlen’s ouster. “We’re hearing concerns from the people that as the head of a political party, his decisions won’t be as unbiased or as fair when decisions come before him,” Singh said. “A lot of money flows through the party, and we want to explore those concerns.”

After the GOP’s bruising losses in the county elections and the resignation of former longtime Chairman Bill Layton, Earlen was named to head the party. In November, two incumbent freeholders, the county clerk, and U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, who represented Burlington and Ocean Counties, were all defeated.

Earlen said his new position does not interfere with his serving on the Pinelands Commission. “All the appointments on the Pinelands Commission are made by politicians, and on top of that, there are a multitude of mayors, freeholders, and other folks involved in local and state politics who have served in the past. Many of us wear different hats,” said Earlen, who is also mayor of Lumberton Township. “The commission’s job is to enforce the comprehensive management plan and protect the Pinelands.”

Politics and accusations of conflicts of interest have long plagued the Pinelands Commission.

In 2013, Commissioner Edward Lloyd, who was the president of the Eastern Environmental Law Center, was asked to recuse himself on votes involving a second gas pipeline because he said he was told by the Attorney General’s Office that he had a potential conflict of interest.

Environmental groups opposed to that pipeline criticized the recusal request, saying Christie was trying to muster enough votes to get the pipeline approved after Lloyd had raised questions about it.

That South Jersey Gas Co. pipeline received approvals in 2016 and 2017. It follows a 22-mile route that starts in Cumberland County and ends at a proposed gas-fired electricity-generation plant in Cape May County.

Members of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups hold banners during an Earth Day rally on the beach in Beesleys Point in Upper Township, N.J., in 2014 to protest the proposed pipeline through the Pinelands.
Members of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups hold banners during an Earth Day rally on the beach in Beesleys Point in Upper Township, N.J., in 2014 to protest the proposed pipeline through the Pinelands.

After the first vote on the project’s approval ended in a tie, Christie appointed Earlen as chairman, in 2016, to replace Mark Lohbauer, a foe of the project. Cumberland County also switched its representative on the commission to a member who favored the project, and a second vote allowed the project to move forward.

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who has been in office one year, has discretion to name a new chairman at any time. When asked for comment, a spokesperson said in an email: “The Governor’s Office does not comment on appointments that have not yet been made. Gov. Murphy has directed his team to take a hard look at energy infrastructure projects as part of an updated Energy Master Plan, which will set New Jersey on a path to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.” Follow-up questions were not answered.

“It’s surprising to me the Democratic governor has left the chairman of the local Republican Party as the chair of the commission," Montgomery said. “I don’t like to see the Pinelands Commission politicized.”

Montgomery said one reason could be that Murphy’s administration has “two sets of constituents they like, the people who care about the environment and oppose pipelines, and then they have unions, the operating engineers, who want the work."

In recent days, Murphy made his first two nominations to the commission. Both are environmentalists, and they await confirmation by the state Senate.