With passions running high at times, more than 250 supporters and opponents of a proposed gas pipeline that would run through protected Pinelands forest overflowed a public-comment session Tuesday in Browns Mills.
Scores more were left standing outside the venue – the parish hall of St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church – waiting their turns to speak or watch the proceedings, which began shortly before 10 a.m. and continued well into the afternoon.
At one point, state police escorted out a pipeline opponent who dismissed the hearing with shouted expletives. Some pipeline foes in the crowd also joined in chants of "Shut it down," and similar shouts rose from some of those standing outside.
Opponents argued repeatedly that the project is barred by the Pinelands' Comprehensive Management Plan, which the commission is charged with enforcing, and that approving the pipeline would set a precedent for more pipelines, electric power lines, and other utilities.
Advocates mostly asserted that the pipeline would provide jobs, supply in-state electrical generation, and serve as a backup conduit for natural gas for 142,000 South Jersey residents and businesses in the event that the region's main gas line becomes inoperable.
The 24-inch pipeline would run for 22 miles from Mauricetown in Cumberland County to a gas-fired electrical generation plant in Upper Township, Cape May County, that would be converted from coal-fired to gas-fired. Ten miles of that route would run beneath forest where utilities are barred by the Comprehensive Management Plan unless they "primarily serve the needs of the Pinelands."
The commission's 15-member board must decide whether the project meets that standard.
In 2014, by a split vote with one recusal, the board rejected South Jersey Gas' request for a special waiver for an identical route. Since then, Gov. Christie's office, labor unions, and influential lawmakers, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), have pressed the board to reverse its 2014 veto.
The utility resubmitted its application in 2015, but it has been met with numerous legal challenges. These include a November ruling by the Superior Court's Appellate Division that a determination by commission staff — that the project could proceed because it conformed to the management plan — was outside its scope. The court instructed that only the board, not staff, must decide the matter.
No vote has been scheduled, but one could come at the board's next meeting, Feb. 10.
Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, was the first of many speakers who urged the commissioners to reject the pipeline because the generation plant it would serve sits outside the 1.1 million-acre federal preserve that the commission oversees.
Tittel noted that the plant, once converted to gas, would continue to sell electricity to the PJM "grid" that supplies electricity to 12 other states besides New Jersey. "Your job is to uphold the Pinelands Act" of 1979 that created the state Pinelands Commission, he told the board members, adding, "It's not the Pipeline Act."
Bob Fatzinger, senior vice president for South Jersey Gas, followed Tittel to the microphone and told the commissioners that keeping the power plant in operation would help meet the vision of the state's master energy plan by providing in-state electrical generation.
Fatzinger noted that South Jersey Gas already operates 1,400 miles of gas pipelines in the Pinelands, including "hundreds of miles" beneath protected forest. He said the proposed line would be built in an environmentally safe manner and operated with "state-of-the-art safety features" that include remotely controlled shutoff valves in case of a leak.
Several speakers representing the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said the coal-fired power plant — long a major point source of nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, and particulates — would produce a tiny fraction of those pollutants once converted to gas.
John Gray, the DEP's deputy chief of staff, said the department had reviewed SJG's application and concluded that "no [alternative] pipeline route could avoid the forested areas." Gray further noted that the route would run mostly under state roads or their shoulders.
But the many opponents who spoke repeatedly told commissioners that energy and job generation were not the task of the Pinelands Commission.
"This project is justified only by its own momentum," Carol Jones of Tuckahoe told the commissioners. "Electrical need is down, and the need for B.L.E. [the B.L. England generation plant] is questionable. The role of this commission is to protect Pinelands, not provide jobs," Jones said. "Please don't compromise."
June Hament of Voorhees noted all of the "conflicting concerns" being presented to the commission, but these, she said, "are not your problem. You're the Pinelands Commission. You have one and only one concern, and that is to protect this fragile ecosystem. … The other problems can be handled," Hament said, "but not by you. I'm asking you to take the charter very seriously and … follow your hearts, not corporate interests."
Jaclyn Rhoads, deputy director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, told the commissioners that it was her organization's position that the day's public-comment session did not meet the legal requirement of a public hearing under state law.
The Alliance, an advocacy group, last week petitioned the Appellate Division for a stay halting the comment session — and the entire review process — on the grounds that the rule changes the commission made in December are illegal and in violation of the state's Open Meetings Act. The court did not act on that request.
Mark Lohbauer, former chair of the commission who still sits as a commissioner, asked the current chair, Sean Earlen, if board members would have an opportunity to question assertions made by state regulatory agencies and South Jersey Gas before the application comes up for a vote.
Earlen replied that board members "will have an opportunity to ask questions."