Pinelands Commission votes to go ahead with controversial pipeline hearing

Henry M. Ogden with the State of NJ Division of Rate Counsel testifies about the 22-mile proposed South Jersey Gas Line in Petersburg, Upper Township, N.J. on Oct. 19, 2015.

The Pinelands Commission voted, 8-5, Monday to proceed with Tuesday's public comment session on South Jersey Gas' proposal to build a pipeline through protected Pinelands forest.

The commission held a conference-call meeting Monday morning to discuss whether to proceed with the session in light of a legal challenge brought by the  Pinelands Preservation Alliance, an advocacy group that has petitioned the Appellate Division of Superior Court to issue an injunction halting Tuesday's comment session.

That session is scheduled to take place during the commission's monthly meeting, at the parish center of St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church, 22 Trenton Rd., Browns Mills. The meeting, which was relocated in anticipation of a large crowd, is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m.

The alliance and other opponents of the pipeline's proposed route allege that the commission erred at its December meeting when it went into a closed-door session with no public notice to discuss whether to create an expedited approval process for South Jersey's Gas' application.

They also assert that 10 miles of the 22-mile project would run through protected Pinelands forest where such utility projects are barred by the Pinelands Commission charter unless they specifically "serve the needs of the Pinelands."

The proposed pipeline would run from Mauricetown in Cumberland County to a privately owned, for-profit, gas-fired electrical generation plant in Upper Township, Cape May County.

Although the 15-member commission in 2014 rejected the proposal, in 2015 South Jersey Gas resubmitted a virtually identical application. This time commission staff asserted that because the electric plant was in the Pinelands, it would "serve the needs of the Pinelands," and could proceed without review by the commission board.     

Members of the board expressed surprise, and the alliance and two other environmental groups sued to overturn the staff's  ruling.

In November the Appellate Division ruled that Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands Commission, had overstepped her authority in allowing the pipeline to proceed, and it remanded the application to the commission's board for review and any final judgment on whether the project is permissible under the commission's charter.