Pinelands Commission Holds Public Hearing on Proposed Gas Pipeline

By Brenda Flanagan

Protesters objected as the Pinelands Commission accepted final public comments on the proposed 22-mile-long natural gas pipeline for South Jersey Gas through the protected pine barrens. It’s a recurring flash point for volatile emotions in South Jersey.

“You as a commission, we’ve trusted you with our most precious resources. Once, it was voted down. It was dredged up again. Don’t betray us,” said Sally McInerny, a Corbin City resident.

The crowd packed the 200-person capacity venue while dozens more waited their turn, outside in a cold rain. Despite bitter complaints — “This is not democracy!” — the meeting continued about whether to permit the pipeline to convey natural gas from Millville to the BL England power plant in Upper Township. Supporters argue it’ll boost the economy and safeguard power supplies.

“The line will also enhance natural gas reliability for 142,000 customers in Atlantic and Cape May counties, reducing the potential for outages that could last for months,” said Bob Fatzinger, senior vice president of engineering services and system integrity for South Jersey Gas.

“I’m in favor of this project. This project’s going to produce plenty of good-paying jobs for all our people,” said Jack Koch, business representative of IUEC Local 5.

“This pipeline will replace the burning of coal and fuel oil and re-power the BL England plant with a much cleaner natural gas,” said Debra DiLorenzo, president of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey.

But more opponents than supporters stepped up to the mic, and they emphasized the Pinelands Commission was created to enforce a comprehensive management plan that has one goal: shield the Pinelands.

“The pipeline threatens our watershed. Leaks are inevitable, as is the development that will surely accompany it. This project is justified only by its own momentum. The role of the commission is not to provide jobs, but to protect the Pinelands,” said Carol Jones, Tuckahoe resident.

“I’m holding this hula hoop as a visual to remind all of you of the sheer magnitude of this pipeline and future pipelines that will be approved if you grant permission for this pipeline,” said Patti Caruso of Upper Freehold.

Three years ago, the commission — in a tie vote — rejected this proposal. A revised application passed, but without a vote before the full commission. Now it’s back after a court battle, but before a reconfigured panel. Former Commissioner Bob Jackson lost his seat after voting against the pipeline.

“I could care less whether that plant got power. That pipe couldn’t come through the Pinelands. I’m frustrated because my integrity was bruised when — after the vote — I got kicked off. I was just being honest,” he said.

“We expect they’re going to rubber-stamp this and push it through. So what we expect to happen is we’ll be going back to court,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Those left out in the rain were let in when others left, but the bungled logistics angered advocates.

“People showed up early and they got turned away. There’s no public process that should shut out the public before the hearing begins,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

“It was not our intention to have a space too small. We believed it would be adequate. We moved people in as fast as we could,” said Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands Commission.

The commission didn’t vote on the pipeline today. That will happen at a regularly scheduled meeting. The next one will be in February.