Riordan: Pinelands pipeline: How not to preserve a special place

On my first-ever visit to New Jersey, a college friend from Toms River introduced me to the Garden State’s two natural wonders:  Bruce Springsteen  and the Pinelands.

Forty-two years later, the Boss still rocks.

But the 1.1-million-acre national reserve —an evocative, distinctive, and priceless landscape of pitch pines, sugar sands, and cedar waterways —is under a cloud.

The Pinelands Commission is expected to vote Friday on an application by South Jersey Gas to build a 22-mile, 24-inch, high-pressure natural-gas transmission pipeline from Maurice River Township in Cumberland County to the B.L. England power plant in Upper Township, Cape May County.

Although the commission narrowly rejected the utility company’s nearly identical application in 2014, Gov. Christie, a pipeline champion, and other officials have been assiduously tweaking the oversight body’s membership ever since.

And on Feb. 17, executive director Nancy Wittenberg issued a report recommending approval of a project she inexplicably views as somehow compatible with the state’s Comprehensive Management Plan for the reserve.

Pipeline opponents have been busy protesting in Trenton as well as near the (purportedly) protected forests through which the underground pipeline would be constructed. The Pinelands Preservation Alliance, other green groups, and their supporters also have been energized by the nation’s profound political shift.

Having a climate-change skeptic in the White House, and a man even more skeptical about environmental regulations in charge of the soon-to-be-ironically named Environmental Protection Agency, can have that effect on people. Including those unaccustomed to finding themselves carrying "Save the Pinelands" signs.

Nevertheless, it seems fossil fuel pipelines of all kinds are having a renaissance across the country; in New Jersey, the airwaves are ablaze with commercials extolling the job-creating, future-ensuring benefits of building them.

Those of us who oppose such projects are being advised to wake up and realize that the Pinelands are neither pristine nor hallowed ground – and that a pipeline enabling construction of a  better B.L. England plant  that no longer burns  coal will have economic, environmental, and even national security or disaster-response benefits.

In a thoughtful, detailed, and eminently reasonable email – one of several I received from pipeline advocates – Beach Haven businessman J. Lindsay Fuller noted that the proposed route “would bury the pipeline in highway rights of way [and] would cause no permanent damage or changes to the Pinelands.”

He wrote that as a retired New Jersey National Guard officer, “I am far more concerned about the economic and military risks [of energy insufficiency] than I am about this proposed pipeline and the extremely low levels of environmental risks involved.”

Support for the project also can be found in hamlets along the route, as my colleague David O’Reilly reported.

But I continue to be persuaded by folks like Rabbi Ilene Schneider of Marlton, who urges the commission to act like an environmental steward and not like an economic development agency.

“You have within your power the ability to prevent the degradation of the land and the dismantling of the intentions of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan,” she told the commission in an email.

The commission, the plan, and the reserve itself exist only because farsighted people nearly 40 ago recognized the special nature of the Pinelands and the special responsibilities of anyone with power over it.

A pipeline isn't nearly as special. It would be an ordinary piece of infrastructure of the sort the management plan explicitly prohibits. And approving this potentially precedent-setting project requires seeing the Pinelands merely as a place pretty much like anywhere else.

The sort of place a yes vote will help the Pinelands eventually, inexorably, become.

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