N.J. commission should reject pipeline through the Pinelands

Pinelands Pipeline
In February, opponents of a natural gas pipeline in the Pinelands protested at a Pineland Commission meeting.


Chris Christie may leave office as New Jersey’s least popular governor ever, but he could get one last victory next week: A fracked gas pipeline through the beloved Pinelands. This unnecessary, dangerous project poses serious threats to our air and water and must be stopped.

The 28-mile Southern Reliability Link (SRL) is a high-pressure pipeline that would run from Chesterfield Township to Manchester Township, traveling through residential areas, the Pinelands, and two Superfund sites. The push to put new fossil-fuel pipelines in the Pinelands has drawn intense opposition from local residents and elected officials, but the ultimate decision rests with the Pinelands Commission, a body that Christie and state politicians have tried to stack to favor the interests of energy corporations over the safety and well-being of local residents and the preservation of one of the state’s environmental treasures.

Last month, Pinelands Commission executive director Nancy Wittenberg recommended approving the pipeline. This was hardly a surprise; in 2015, she tried to unilaterally OK the application, but the courts ruled that the full commission must decide. That decision is expected at a special meeting next Thursday.

For commissioners who took an oath to protect and enhance the Pinelands, this decision should be simple. The Pinelands is protected by a special set of rules, the Comprehensive Management Plan, that sets forth restrictions on certain kinds of development. According to the rules, a pipeline could be permitted only if it were genuinely “associated with the function” of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The SRL does not meet this standard. In fact, emails between New Jersey Natural Gas officials and base representatives in 2015, obtained through a freedom of information request, show that the supposed “need” for a new pipeline was invented to streamline the approval process.

The pipeline should be rejected on those grounds alone. But there are other concerns that should move commissioners to vote no.

This pipeline would sit within the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, so trenching and dewatering may cause serious impacts on nearby wetlands and the mobilization of groundwater contaminants. New Jersey Natural Gas has consistently downplayed issues of contamination along the route, and ignores contamination issues that have recently been brought to light, such as the perfluorinated compounds found on the base. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals has been shown to cause health problems including cancer liver damage, and developmental impacts to fetuses, among other issues.

Additionally, there are more than 20 wetlands and stream crossings within the Pinelands portion of this pipeline. Horizontal directional drilling would create the risk of “inadvertent returns” of drilling fluids to the surface water, which is currently plaguing construction of a pipeline across Pennsylvania. Construction would also cause disturbance to the habitats along the route, where threatened plant and animal species reside.

Hurricane Harvey showed that climate catastrophe is not a problem to be dealt with in the future; it is right here, right now. We must summon the political will to stop building fossil-fuel infrastructure like the SRL pipeline. This will require transformative federal and state legislation, such as a bill introduced in Maryland that calls for 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. The legislation puts a moratorium on new fossil-fuel projects while laying out a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

Massive changes to our energy system will be necessary if we wish to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The Pinelands commissioners can do their part by rejecting the Southern Reliability Link pipeline.

Katie Smith is a policy advocate at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. katie@pinelandsalliance.org
Lena Smith is a South Jersey organizer with Food and Water Watch. lsmith@fwwatch.org