By Lauren Wanko
“This is Bridgegate in the pines,” said Environment New Jersey Director Doug O’Malley.
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance and other environmental groups this morning rallied on the State House steps to halt two Pinelands Commission nominations from being approved at today’s Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.
“They were appointments specifically catered to one applicant — South Jersey Gas — for a pipeline deal the nominations were made just two months after the commission denied the application,” said Pinelands Preservation Alliance Executive Director Jaclyn Rhoads.
In January, the 15-member Pinelands Commission rejected the proposal to run a natural gas line through portions of the Pinelands in a seven to seven vote — one commissioner was required to recuse himself. South Jersey Gas would have run the gas line through the forest primarily along Route 49. The company planned to extend a high pressure line to the BL England Power Plant in Cape May County. The governor’s nominees would replace two commissioners who voted no to the pipeline.
“They’re deliberately done as political retribution for the governor to remove the commissioners,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.
Gov. Chris Christie nominated New Hanover Republican Mayor Dennis Roohr to replace D’Arcy Rohan Green. The senators repeatedly questioned Roohr on how he would vote on the pipeline.
“I want to come to this board with a far clear and open mind,” Roohr said.
“So you are saying you could vote yes or no, not sure?” asked Sen. Nick Scutari.
Roohr replied, “I have no opinion today.”
Scutari said, “Because the criticism is that decision has been made.”
Roohr says he never met with the governor’s office in person. He did have a number of phone conversations, but he never spoke to anyone in the governor’s office about the pipeline.
“There have been reams of newspaper articles and other and media covering this. Have you followed any of that?” asked Sen. Loretta Weinberg. Roohr replied, “Absolutely not.”
Democrat Robert Barr followed. The Ocean City resident advocates for those with intellectual disabilities and volunteers in Sen. Jeff Van Drew’s office.
“I don’t know how Mr. Barr will vote on any project that might come along on the Pinelands Commission. I have no sense, I haven’t spoken to him about it, I will not speak to him about it,” said Van Drew.
Barr also said he only had phone conversations with the governor’s office. The Ocean City resident says he expressed interest in the position and thinks Sen. Van Drew submitted his name. When asked about what he thinks of development in the Pinelands, Barr said, “We have to tread carefully and cautiously when doing so.”
“Do you believe that you have been nominated in order to change the vote?” Weinberg asked. He replied, “I don’t know if that’s the reason why they nominated me. If that’s the reason, it’s a risky proposition.”
The committee did not take a vote on the two nominees. The Pinelands Preservation Alliance says they will continue to keep pressure on the senators, rally their supporters and encourage them to call and email lawmakers.