Jeers and shouts as Pinelands Commission votes to allow controversial pipeline

The New Jersey Pinelands Commission voted 8-4 Thursday morning to allow 12.1 miles of natural gas pipeline to be run through the national reserve and military base within it, as a raucous group of environmentalists and residents opposed to the plan erupted in whistles, jeers, and shouts.

There was one abstention under the resolution voted on at the Trenton War Memorial before a crowd of about 100.

The commission’s director ruled in 2015 to allow New Jersey Natural Gas to build its Southern Reliability Link, but was challenged in court. An appeals court remanded it back, saying the full commission must vote.

The pipeline is separate from a 22-mile line planned in a different part of the Pinelands by South Jersey Gas to connect with a power plant. Environmental groups have appealed approval of that project too.

Before Thursday’s vote, protesters held a rally outside the steps of the memorial and shouted “lies, lies” repeatedly when they were inside during the hearing.  Supporters also showed up but were quiet during the proceedings.

Camera icon Frank Kummer
The New Jersey Pinelands Commission voted Wednesday, Sept. 14 to allow a controversial pipeline by New Jersey Natural gas to run through a protected area. The crowd is shown prior to the vote.

A chief issue hinged on the 30-inch pipeline’s run through Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Ocean County. The pipeline will not serve the base directly, and dissenters believed that fact alone should prohibit its construction.

However, the commission’s executive director, Nancy Wittenberg, said base leadership gave its support to the pipeline because it would provide an energy redundancy for the installation — even though critics say there is no plan to feed gas to the base through it.  She gave a presentation saying the use fits within the guidelines of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan.

Before casting his yes vote, vice chairman Paul Galletta said: “The base commanders thought that they needed this … and I’m a big believer in national security.” Galletta is owner of Atlantic Blueberry Co., one of the largest blueberry farms in the nation.

Mark Lohbauer of Pennsauken gave a lengthy defense of his no vote, going point-by-point through Wittenburg’s presentation on why she determined the pipeline should be allowed.

Lohbauer said the pipeline is being built to benefit a private company, requiring construction in some of the most sensitive areas of the Pinelands. He also said none of the pipeline had anything to do “with the function of the military base” and will not connect with it, anyway.

Protesters said the energy redundancy was concocted to justify the vote.  No one from the military base was present.

Southern Reliability Link Pipeline

The 12.1-mile pipeline, which was approved by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission on Thursday, would run through the Pinelands National Reserve and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
SOURCE: New Jersey Natural Gas
Staff Graphic

The Southern Reliability Link is 30 miles altogether and will deliver natural gas from Pennsylvania to one million customers in New Jersey.  It connects to an existing pipeline in Chesterfield, Burlington County, and terminates as a connection into an existing New Jersey Natural Gas system in Manchester, Ocean County, off the tail end of the military base.

“They are now at risk of completely shattering the public’s trust,” Carlton Montgomery, director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said just before the vote, which many opponents believed was a foregone conclusion.

Jeff Tittel, director of the state’s Sierra Club, said in a statement immediately after the vote: “Once again, they took the side of pipeline companies over doing their job and protecting the Pinelands. This gives the Commission another black eye in their shameful and unlawful approval of these dirty and dangerous pipelines.”

However, the pipeline had its supporters, including a contingent from Local 825 of the Operating Engineers.

“I’m here because I want the pipeline,” said Christopher Bohlke, of Chatsworth, which is in Woodland Township, Burlington County.

Camera icon Frank Kummer
The New Jersey Pinelands Commission voted Wednesday, Sept. 14 to allow a controversial pipeline by New Jersey Natural gas to run through a protected area. Christopher Bohlke of Chatsworth, also a union worker, supports the pipeline.

A union member, Bohlke said the pipeline would bring gas to residents of the Chatsworth community — which is within the Pinelands National Reserve — who now rely on oil stored in tanks that leak. He said natural gas is cleaner and provides jobs. He works at the New Jersey Gas compressor station in Chesterfield.

The line would not, for now, supply Chatsworth. But Bohlke hopes that will change.