By Briana Vannozzi
Opponents are calling the move a sneak attack.
“On Friday in August when everyone is on vacation and no one is paying attention, it wasn’t even on the agenda of the Pinelands Commission,” said NJ Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.
In an otherwise routine meeting by the Pinelands Commission, staff issued a “Certificate of Filing” to South Jersey Gas. The utility company is at the heart of a controversial plan to build a 22-mile natural gas pipeline along roads through the Pinelands. The ruling means the application is complete and ready for review. It also means it’ll move forward without a vote from the same board that previously struck it down.
“Let me put it this way, if they thought they had the votes on the commission, she wouldn’t take away the authority of the commission to vote on this,” Tittel said.
The original application by South Jersey Gas was rejected by the commission in January after it found inconsistencies with the Pinelands Protection Act. So, South Jersey Gas reapplied in May — seeking the certificate of filing. Critics, like members of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, argue the plan hasn’t changed, the project just found a way to circumvent the process.
“The Pinelands rules regulate where infrastructure can go. It’s a fundamental part of the Pinelands because we know that when you build it they will come. Whatever you say today as to who will use this pipelne, once you’ve built it in the future it will be an attraction for growth and development and pressure to further change the rules to further violate the regulations in order to build more in the Pinelands protected areas. That’s why its so important,” said Carleton Montgomery.
Not so fast says Pinelands Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg.
“We have been explaining the process for this particular certificate of filing since it came through the door in May at one if not two meetings every month in detail at one meeting we spent about a half an hour going over this application, so this is not a surprise,” said Wittenberg.
Wittenberg has been taking heat since the announcement and says the filing is not an approval, that the company made changes to follow Pinelands regulations.
“That new piece of information that was the contract that made iron clad that all the gas was going to B.L. England and would be consumed by the Pinelands. That was the issue that caused a rub in the first place and this time they submitted firm documentation addressing that very issue. So it wasn’t a reversal,” Wittenberg said.
But environmental groups say that’s not possible, when the plant B.L. England provides both power and gas to counties outside the Pinelands region.
“It has to be for primary use within the forest preservation area, well this pipeline goes to a power plant that’s not in a forest preservation area,” said Tittel.
Critics also fear the public comment portion will be taken away — to which Wittenberg assures it will not. Opponents plan to take legal action and they’re looking at options to fight this in court.