A controversial and much-litigated natural gas pipeline project will likely face new challenges next week when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection hosts the first of two wetlands hearings related to the proposed "Southern Reliability Link" route.

New Jersey Natural Gas (NJNG) is seeking to build a 30-mile, 30-inch pipeline that would start in Chesterfield Township in Burlington County, pass through protected Pinelands on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and terminate in Manchester Township in Ocean County.

On Aug. 22 the DEP is scheduled to conduct a hearing in Bordentown on the potential impact of a proposed compressor station serving the project.

On Sept. 7 the DEP is to hold a separate hearing on the pipeline itself.

New Jersey's Board of Public Utilities approved the project in March, but the utility must still win certain DEP permits.

If the project is allowed to proceed, NJNG hopes to begin work late this year. It would bill ratepayers for its construction and maintenance costs, which it estimates at $178 million.

The utility says the Link will provide needed "resiliency" and "redundancy" to guard against service disruptions.

The project would "reinforce NJNG's existing infrastructure by providing an alternative means to maintain system pressure in the event of a supply interruption or system failure," NJNG said in its November filing to the BPU. "Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy showed the difficulty in returning service to customers after service interruptions," it said.

Under the proposed rate filing, a residential customer using the average 100 therms a month would pay about $21.69 more a month, it told the BPU, which approved the route by a 5-0 vote in March. But a spokesman for the utility said last week that the customer cost was still being negotiated.

Critics of the project assert that there appears to be little evidence of a need for such redundancy, because the service area is already served by multiple and interconnected gas lines.

But Craig Lynch, NJNG's senior vice president for energy delivery, said last week that the Link "is about our entire system, not isolated areas along the shoreline."

"We get 85 percent of our supply from one lateral," or main service line, he said. Lynch said the Link would go into service as soon as it's completed as part of NJNG's normal "balancing" of service.

Townships along the route are vigorously opposing the line, however, on grounds that it would pass dangerously close to homes and schools.

"Safety and health are absolute concerns," Bordentown Mayor Jill Popko said.

The Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co., whose north-south Trenton-Woodbury pipeline would connect with the proposed Link, is seeking to locate a compressor station in the township's wooded, 13-acre Federal Estates open space property "and we are absolutely against that," Popko said.

DEP's permit hearing on the station is scheduled for 6 p.m. next Monday at the Ramada Inn in Bordentown.

Popko said she is concerned that the hearing room will hold fewer than half of the more than 400 residents she expects will turn out.

On Sept. 7, the DEP is to conduct a hearing that addresses wetlands concerns along the pipeline's proposed route.

After leaving Chesterfield it would pass through North Hanover, Upper Freehold, and Plumsted before turning south along Route 539 and entering the Pinelands and traversing the Joint Base. On exiting the base at its southern boundary the line would enter Lakehurst Borough and end in Manchester.

Chesterfield and Mansfield have hired Mark Gallagher, a wetlands expert and vice president with the environmental engineering firm Princeton Hydrology, to present testimony at the hearings.

The two townships, along with the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and two other environmental groups, have also filed legal challenges to the approvals granted the project by both the BPU and the Pinelands Commission, whose staff issued the Link a "certificate of filing" in December.

"It met all Pinelands requirements," the commission's executive director, Nancy Wittenberg, said Friday.

"We told them, 'Now go and get your other permits.' "

Her decision also is being appealed by environmental groups.

"Nothing in the [Pinelands Commission] regulations allows for this," said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, one of the groups appealing Wittenberg's action.