Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey File Lawsuit Against SJ Gas Pipeline Approval by Pinelands Commission
Trenton -- The Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey are suing the Pinelands Commission on their approval of a 22-mile gas pipeline in the Pinelands. The South Jersey Gas pipeline will destroy environmentally sensitive land, threaten our water supply, and keep a polluting power plant outside of the Pinelands open. We believe that the Pinelands Commission violated the Comprehensive Management Plan and the Pinelands Protection Act by approving this pipeline, especially since they did not follow proper procedure to approve the pipeline. This pipeline clearly violates the Pinelands rules because this type of infrastructure is only allowed through the Pinelands Forest Preservation Area, if it primarily serves the Pinelands, but it does not. We also believe that these actions violated the New Jersey Administrative Procedures Act.
“We are going to Court to do the job the Pinelands Commission is supposed to do, which is to protect the Pinelands. The Pinelands Commission have sold out the Pinelands and the environment by approving the South Jersey Gas pipeline. We are filing this lawsuit because the pipeline clearly violates the Comprehensive Management Plan and the Pinelands Act. We are doing this to protect the Pinelands from this damaging and unnecessary pipeline because it violates the Commission’s own rules. This pipeline will cause irreparable harm to our forests, threaten biodiversity, and cut an ugly scar through the Pinelands,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The reason the Commission had this vote is because we sued them once and won. When the Court remanded approval back to the Commission, the Commission’s process was a sham and they used alternative facts to justify the unjustifiable. The pipeline clearly doesn’t primarily serve the people living in the Pinelands. The gas is serving the B.L. England power plant, which is outside of state jurisdiction of the Pinelands. This clearly violates the Pinelands rules.”
Sierra Club, Environment New Jersey and others went to Court against the Executive Director’s August 2016 approval and had a major victory when the Appellate Court said what the Executive Director did was ‘ultra vires.’ The Appellate Court ruled against this approval and sent it back to the Commission for a new determination and public process. However, the process violates the recent Appellate Court case because the Pinelands Commission approved it without a public process. By only giving the public a chance to speak against the proposal at a “general meeting,” there was no real public hearing. This prohibited a real evidentiary hearing with cross examination of expert witnesses, prohibits the public from asking questions, and limits the time for the public comment.
“The Pinelands are an ecological oasis, not a convenient route for gas pipelines to tear up. The vote by the Pinelands Commission to circumvent their own management plan to rubberstamp the South Jersey Gas pipeline was a naked attempt at power politics. This legal action is to preserve the integrity of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan and the integrity of independent commissions,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “We are proud to legally challenge this hasty approval with the New Jersey Sierra Club. We won last year at the Appellate Division, and we are confident we can win again. We need to stop this illegal project which was quickly rubberstamped by the Pinelands Commission over the articulate objections of a minority of members. The Pinelands National Reserve was created to keep out fossil fuel pipelines and the Comprehensive Management Plan can’t be ignored because it's convenient to the applicant. The Christie Administration lost their previous attempt to ram through the South Jersey Gas pipeline through the Pinelands Commission and preceded to boot off Commissioners who opposed the pipeline. These political machinations were clearly exposed during the vote. We urge the Superior Court to reject this decision to protect the integrity of the Pinelands Commission and the ecology of the Pine Barrens.”
The approval process and approval itself violated NJ’s Administrative Procedures Act since they did rulemaking without a rule. By moving forward with this application, with absence of rule-making and they need to follow proper public procedure, which is required for this type of infrastructure. They approved the project as a private development however, a regulated utility is not a private development. This discrepancy violates the Comprehensive Management Plan. Since it is not allowed in the CMP and there is no process, it is therefore prohibited. This pipeline is also prohibited under Pinelands rules unless it benefits the people within the Pinelands, though it will clearly serve people living outside the Pinelands.
“We are going back to Court against this pipeline does not meet the standard of strict compliance or meet the Memorandum of Agreement in the Forest Area. They have not identified whether the project is either a private development like a Wawa or for public infrastructure like a water line. This means the Pinelands Commission has not properly defined what type of project this is and they have not come up with a proper procedure. Therefore they were making up the application as they go along instead of proposing rule making,” said Tittel.
According to the Pinelands Act, the Forest Area provision has a strict definition of use. It does not provide simply for a ‘use,’ in the present case an electrical generating facility located within the Pinelands, to be the determining factor. Rather, it requires a larger scale benefit to the residents and communities within the region of the Pinelands to be primarily served by the development. By re-fueling BL England Power Plant, which is mostly outside of the Pinelands, this pipeline clearly violates the Comprehensive Management Plan. This is because the gas from the South Jersey Gas pipeline is meant to serve BL England and it will send electricity all over the place.
“It is clear the Christie Administration will do anything to ram this project through and to keep the BL England Power Plant open. The pipeline carries four times as much gas than the plant needs. The Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan says that this project must primarily serve the needs the of the people in the Pinelands. However, the BL England plant is outside the jurisdiction of the Pinelands. What’s even worse is that they say it’s for reliability for people in Cape May and Atlantic Counties, clearly outside the Pinelands and violating the rules. The Commission should have voted this project down again because it is a public utility that doesn’t meet the needs of the Pinelands,” said Tittel.
The Pinelands is the largest open space on the eastern seaboard and recognized for its biodiversity by the United Nations. It is also the country’s first National Reserve and holds 17 trillion gallons of water in its aquifer. While so many people and organizations are concerned, about this approval, few organizations are going to court. Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey are being represented by Renee Steinhagen of NJ Appleseed in this lawsuit. Pinelands Preservation Alliance have already filed a lawsuit.
“We are going to court because the credibility of the Pinelands is at stake. No longer is the Pinelands Commission an independent body with a purpose to protect the Pinelands. Governor Christie and Senator Sweeney are trying to deconstruct the Commission so it no longer does it job to protect the Pinelands. This approval violated the Public Trust and went against thousands of New Jersey citizens, including four former Governors, who have spoken out against the pipeline,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This pipeline is not only bad for the environment and will undo a successful growth management plan, it’s dangerous and unneeded. The South Jersey Gas pipeline will create irreversible harm to wetlands, streams and threaten one of the largest sources of fresh drinking water on the east coast. 40 years after the Pinelands Act was passed. We are going to court to protect the Pinelands all over again. We beat them once, we are going to beat them again.”