Multiple members of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission voiced ethical, procedural, and environmental concerns Wednesday about a proposal to lay a gas pipeline through nearly 15 miles of the protected southern Pinelands.
Their qualms raised questions about whether the controversial project would win commission approval.
"It's like we've been rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It's time to look at the iceberg," Commissioner Edward Lloyd said of efforts to get the panel to waive its rules to permit the pipeline.
"We are not looking very sweet on the outside," Commissioner Robert Jackson told a special meeting of the commission's eight-member policy and practices committee.
Jackson said he had been "bombarded" by public concerns that "we're being paid off" by South Jersey Gas Co. to approve the project.
South Jersey Gas recently offered to donate $7.25 million to the commission to buy easements or acreage along the proposed route to protect the line from any future gas connections.
The utility has also offered about $500,000 to the commission, in part for an environmental education center.
The complete pipeline would run 21 miles from Maurice Township in Cumberland County to Great Egg Harbor River in Upper Township, Cape May County, and a B.P. England Co. power plant.
A formal hearing on the Pinelands portion of the pipeline is scheduled by the policy committee for 5 p.m. Monday at the Galloway Township Municipal Building, 300 E. Jimmie Leeds Rd.
The full, 15-member Pinelands Commission could vote at its Jan. 10 meeting to approve or reject the project, but some commissioners on Wednesday questioned whether Monday's hearing should be postponed and the review process revised.
The policy committee decided to go ahead with Monday's hearing.
Construction unions and municipal officials along the route have urged that the project proceed, while some environmentalists have voiced dismay that an approval would set a dangerous precedent for violating the commission's rules.
The issue before the commission and its policy committee is that about 10 miles of the proposed pipeline would run through protected forest land.
The commission's strict "comprehensive management plan" bars construction of roads, towers, and utilities in protected areas unless they are primarily for the benefit of residents in those areas.
Commission staff have determined that the pipeline would not meet the local-benefit criterion, but the comprehensive management plan permits waivers known as "intergovernmental memorandums of agreement" (MOA) in cases of hardship, compelling public need, and a lack of feasible alternative routes.
South Jersey Gas has found an ally in New Jersey's Board of Public Utilities (BPU), the state's regulatory agency.
This year, the BPU determined that the pipeline would help meet Gov. Christie's mandate that the state become more energy self-sufficient. It also contends the line would provide needed "redundancy" to Cape May County if the single main line serving it were ever incapacitated.
And because the rules waiver known as an MOA must be sought by a government agency, the BPU is now serving as the legal applicant before the commission on behalf of South Jersey Gas.
Numerous other agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection, its Division of Fish and Wildlife, and the Army Corps of Engineers, have said they have no objection to the pipeline.
Several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, question whether BPU's stand-in role on behalf of South Jersey Gas is legal.
Nevertheless, the policy and practices committee in October authorized commission staff to draft an MOA that would allow the pipeline to proceed through protected forest.
Most of the route would follow the shoulder of Route 49, but it would also entail drilling deep under several creeks and streams.
Wednesday's special meeting at commission headquarters in Pemberton was called to review the draft MOA. The commission's executive director, Nancy Wittenberg, and Larry Liggett, its director of land use and technology, spent about 90 minutes explaining particulars of the proposed agreement.
Wittenberg noted that the commission had granted 19 MOA waivers for construction in protected areas since the 1980s, ranging from expansion of Atlantic City International Airport to single-family dwellings.
Liggett said his staff studied five possible routes for the pipeline between Maurice River and Upper Townships and "looked everywhere we could think to find an alternative" to the chosen route.
"Nearly all the others have problems: forested areas, wetlands, bay issues," he said.
But Lloyd, a commissioner who does not sit on the policy committee, told his colleagues he was troubled by the use of the BPU to seek a special intragovernmental waiver.
"It's a very dangerous path to go down," he said, calling the MOA "a way to go around our standards" because it is "a waiver with no strict standards."
Lloyd said he would prefer that South Jersey Gas abandon the MOA approach and come before the committee directly "and show compelling need."
Jackson followed, saying he thought the BPU's coming before the Pinelands Commission "and saying 'my friends need a deal' " could be viewed as a conflict of interest.
"I'm not sure this is good," Jackson said. "We look really bad."
Commissioner Leslie Ficcaglia agreed, but also warned her colleagues that "there are a lot of threatened and endangered species and wild and scenic rivers" and commercial fisheries in or near the affected area.
"I'm concerned something could affect their integrity," Ficcaglia said, and urged them not to trust too much to technology. "'State-of-the-art' does not mean 'safe,' she told them.
She called on the commission to hire an outside engineering firm to review the entire application for safety and environmental impact.
Commissioner Candace Ashmun, who participated in the meeting by phone, said it was "ridiculous" to think the pipeline construction would have a "minimal impact," and said she wanted the committee to undertake a more rigorous review of South Jersey Gas and the BPU's assertions that the pipeline would fill a "compelling public need."