Environmental group asks court to block work on Pinelands pipeline until appeals are heard

File: Geoff Richter, 26 of Cherry Hill sings a protest song, "History has its eyes on you" as the New Jersey Pinelands Commission votes Friday, February 24, 2017 to approve a controversial project to build a 22-mile-long gas pipeline through the protected Pinelands forest.

Citing “imminent environmental harm,” the Pinelands Preservation Alliance on Tuesday asked the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court to block the start of construction of South Jersey Gas’ pipeline through the Pinelands while the court considers several appeals against the project.

The motion for a stay further asserts that the Pinelands Commission’s Feb. 24 approval of the project violated its own comprehensive management plan, or charter; that the commission did not conduct proper hearings before the approval; and that two commissioners who voted for the project had potential conflicts of interest.

The 22-mile-long pipeline would begin in Maurice River Township in Cumberland County and serve a natural gas-fired electrical-generation plant in Upper Township, Cape May County. Ten miles of the route would run through a protected Pinelands forest where, opponents say, such infrastructure is barred by the Pinelands Commission’s comprehensive management plan.

Before a vocal crowd of about 800 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill, the Pinelands Commission’s board approved the route by a vote of 9-5 with one abstention. Three years earlier, it had rejected the identical project on a 7-7 vote.

“We believe we have the grounds for a very substantial appeal that has good likelihood of success,” said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the alliance. “We contend the company [South Jersey Gas] is not substantially harmed by waiting until the appeal is decided before starting construction. In contrast, any construction would cause environmental harm and be entirely unnecessary.”

On March 27, the alliance filed an appeal with the Appellate Division asking it to overturn the Pinelands Commission resolution approving the pipeline. Earlier this month, the environmental groups Sierra Club of New Jersey and Environment New Jersey filed similar appeals.

Barbara Ann Del Duke, spokeswoman for South Jersey Gas, said that the utility “looks forward to a resolution of the appeal,” but that the appeal “only serves to delay the project and interferes with our providing the service dependability our customers deserve.”

Although the pipeline is intended primarily to supply gas to the converted power plant, which is currently coal-fired,  South Jersey Gas says it could also serve as a backup supply to 140,000 customers in Cape May County if its main transmission line were out of service.

Del Duke said the company had “not pinpointed a start date” for the project.

Montgomery said that the Preservation Alliance’s appeal is not part of the joint filing made by the Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey, but that they are “closely related,” and that the Appellate Division could choose to hear them as one.

“It’s anybody’s guess as to how long it might take,” said Montgomery, who noted that South Jersey Gas on Monday asked the Appellate Division to expedite the appeals.