Utilities board OKs another Pinelands pipeline

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities on Friday approved another natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands, despite objections by environmentalists.

The action clears the way for the project to move forward without a say by the six communities along the proposed route.

The 5-0 approval exempts the project from municipal land-use laws and possible rejection by affected towns. At least two towns had objected to the project.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the vote "an arrogant betrayal of the public trust," and said his organization would likely appeal.

"This pipeline is unneeded, unnecessary, dangerous, and damaging. It will cut an ugly scar through the Pinelands, preserved farms, and open spaces, destroying those areas and waterways along the route," Tittel said.

The 30-mile project, proposed by New Jersey Natural Gas, would begin in Chesterfield, Burlington County, and stretch through the Pinelands to Manchester Township, Ocean County.

In January, the BPU approved the route, which also would run through North Hanover, Upper Freehold, Plumsted, and Jackson.

The previous month, the BPU approved another controversial natural gas project - a South Jersey Gas pipeline through the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands preserve.

Friday's vote centered on the issue of home rule and who should be included in the decision-making process.

A utility may argue that a project is "for the public good" and appeal to the BPU to approve plans without review by municipalities, said Gregory Reinert, a BPU spokesman.

"This is just superseding local authority," Reinert said. "There are no other matters pending before the board."

The Pinelands Commission this month said the petition complied with the Comprehensive Management Plan that regulates development in the Pine Barrens. Environmentalists contend that hearings should have been convened.

"They are doing it in a way to keep the public from having a say," Tittel said. "That's what we find so troubling."

New Jersey Natural Gas has said the project is needed to add a secondary feeder line to deliver fuel to customers and prevent a repeat of service disruptions that occurred during Hurricane Sandy. The storm heavily damaged infrastructure, and some areas were without power for weeks.

The Southern Reliability project is expected to cost about $170 million. It would provide gas to the company's 450,000 customers in Burlington, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties, who currently rely on a single pipeline.

"We're pleased with today's decision," said New Jersey Natural Gas spokesman Michael Kinney. "The BPU did a thorough and extensive review, and in the end the merits prevailed."

The Sierra Club filed suit in January against the BPU and the Pinelands Commission, and asked the Appellate Division to overturn their approvals of the South Jersey Gas pipeline on the ground that a pipeline is not a permitted use in parts of the Pinelands where it would run.

Beginning in Maurice Township in Cumberland County, the 24-inch-diameter line would deliver natural gas to the B.L. England generating plant in Upper Township, Cape May County.

Plans call for converting the aged and notoriously polluting 450-megawatt oil- and coal-fired plant to gas-fired if the pipeline is built.

Owned by Rockland Capital of Austin, Texas, the plant would continue to sell electricity to the PJM grid, which provides power in 13 states.

mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814 @mlburney