The debate over a proposed natural-gas pipeline through the New Jersey Pinelands took a surprising turn Friday when Pinelands Commission member Edward Lloyd - who 10 days earlier had raised concerns about the approval process - announced that the state Attorney General's Office had instructed him to recuse himself from further deliberations because of a possible conflict of interest.
"I don't think I have a conflict," Lloyd said during a morning meeting of the commission. "I never asked for this." At the end of his remarks, however, he walked out of the meeting in Pemberton Township.
The remaining commission members then resumed a hearing on the 22-mile pipeline between Cumberland County and a proposed gas-fired electricity-generation plant in Upper Township, Cape May County. The hearing, which began Monday in Galloway Township, had been adjourned after about five hours with many speakers remaining.
At Friday's equally long session, representatives of the state Department of Environmental Protection said the proposed power plant would significantly reduce air pollution below that emitted by the existing BL England coal-fired plant. More than a dozen union members spoke in favor of the pipeline, saying it and the new plant would generate needed jobs.
Many citizens and members of environmental groups, however, cautioned that approval would violate the Pinelands' comprehensive management plan, establish a dangerous precedent for further development, and harm the pine forest's ecology.
At a Dec. 4 meeting of the commission's eight-member policy and practices committee, Lloyd told his colleagues that he had serious qualms about the way the commission was reviewing the application.
"It's like we've been rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Lloyd had said. "It's time to look at the iceberg."
About 10 miles of the pipeline proposed by South Jersey Gas Co. would run through protected forest, where new utilities are barred unless they primarily serve local residents.
Because the pipeline does not meet that criterion, the state Board of Public Utilities is seeking a waiver, known as an intergovernmental memorandum of agreement.
Lloyd, a professor of environmental law at Columbia University, had suggested Dec. 4 that the commission consider jettisoning the memorandum process and conduct its own "strict-waiver" review.
He said in an interview Friday that two days after those remarks, he got a call at home from two deputy attorneys general.
They informed him, he said, that the Pinelands Commission had received a letter from the Eastern Environmental Law Center, of which Lloyd is president, advising the commission that its legal notice announcing the Dec. 9 hearing had listed the wrong street address in Galloway.
The letter was written Dec. 5 by a law center staff member who requested that the commission schedule an additional hearing to be in compliance with state notification laws.
Lloyd said he played no role in creation of the letter and did not know of its existence before the commission received it. The letter did not represent the interest of any client and took no position on the merits of the pipeline or the approval process.
"It's a very, very strange situation," he said.
Environmental groups opposed to the pipeline were sharply critical of the attorney general's action and contended that Gov. Christie's office wanted Lloyd out of the way before the panel voted on the pipeline proposal at its Jan. 10 meeting.
"This feels shady," Jeff Tittle, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said in an interview. "It just looks like bullying and strong-arm tactics from the governor."
Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands Commission, said Friday that it was "fairly common" for members of the 15-seat panel to recuse themselves "whenever there is a personal or financial issue" that could be regarded as a potential conflict of interest.
But Lloyd said that from his perspective as a law professor and a Pinelands Commission member since 2002, "what happened here was not common at all."
State law requires that any public official or employee who believes he or she has a potential conflict of interest notify either the state ethics commission, the Attorney General's Office, or their office's designated ethics official for advice on how to proceed.
"The Attorney General's Office appears to have jumped the gun," Lloyd said, "but I had no choice" but to remove himself. He said that to date, he has received no written communication from the Attorney General's Office about the recusal order.
He said he has requested an expedited hearing on the matter, but has not received any acknowledgment. Lloyd may continue to sit at commission meetings on matters that do not pertain to the proposed pipeline.
Leland Moore, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, said Friday that he was not familiar with the matter or in a position to comment.