Trading Pinelands Protections for $8 Million

Media Contacts

Four former Governors Announce Opposition to the Deal

Environment New Jersey

The Pinelands Commission, the state agency charged with protecting the New Jersey Pinelands, is considering a deal that would waive its own environmental protections, damage the Pinelands and deal a body blow to the Commission’s credibility.  Advocates for the Pinelands, including four former New Jersey governors call on Governor Christie and Pinelands Commission to apply the Pinelands protection rules in this case and in all cases. See the letter from the governors here.

The Pinelands is home to New Jersey’s last true wilderness.  One of the largest freshwater aquifers in the United States lies precariously close to its sandy surface and provides drinking water for millions of New Jersey residents and visitors.  Eight million people live in this small state of five million acres, yet we still have a beautiful place to kayak, hike, bike or just drive a scenic road because the State of New Jersey and the federal government worked together to create the Pinelands National Reserve.  The Pinelands has remained largely protected for the last 35 years because the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan sets out a vision and specific rules to save the Pinelands’ unique natural resources. 

Now the Pinelands Commission, the agency charged with protecting the Pinelands, faces a critical decision:  whether to waive the protections of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan in exchange for $8 million, allowing a utility company to build a gas pipeline across the Forest Area to rescue an old coal and oil power plant from final closure, or instead to apply the Pinelands Plan and compel the utility to comply with the rules like everyone else.  The pipeline would be built by South Jersey Gas to serve the BL England power plant owned by Rockland Capital Energy Investments LLC, a Texas-based investment firm.

The proposed pipeline directly violates a core regulation of the Pinelands Plan, which forbids using the Forest Area as a transit route for pipelines and similar infrastructure.  On November 27, 2013, the day before Thanksgiving, the Pinelands Commission staff released a draft Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) intended to waive the rule that bars this pipeline in the Forest Area, in exchange for a payment of $8 million for land acquisition and public education projects of the Pinelands Commission. 

The deal was brokered by the Commission’s staff, but has no effect unless the full Pinelands Commission approves the agreement waiving its rules by at least eight affirmative votes.  The Commission is currently scheduled to vote on the deal at its meeting on Friday, January 10th at the Pinelands Commission offices (the meeting starts at 9:30 a.m.).

“The Commission needs to show that its permits cannot be bought.  Approving the deal would send the message that if you have $8 million you can have your way in the Pinelands, regardless of the rules that are supposed to protect the Pinelands and its unique natural resources,” said Carleton Montgomery, Executive Director for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “The whole idea of using this kind of contractual agreement to waive Pinelands rules is unlawful, and while $8 million may sound like a lot of money, it is nowhere near enough to provide the same level of protection as actually enforcing the Comprehensive Management Plan would provide.”

The proposal has sparked an extraordinary level of public outrage, as thousands of individuals have voiced their opposition.  Over 300 people have spoken out against the project at Pinelands Commission meetings and hearings, almost 5,000 have sent letters or emails to the Commission and the Governor, and over 12,000 people have signed an online petition through started by a concerned New Jersey resident. On December 18th, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, Clean Water Action, Environment New Jersey, Food and Water Watch, and the New Jersey Sierra Club will present close to 13,000 petitions to Governor Christie.

“First they just tried to push this pipeline through, then they offered the Commission $8 million as Pinelands pay-to-play, and now there are those that are trying to bluff, bully, and intimidate people to get this destructive pipeline through.  The people of New Jersey want to protect the Pinelands and it is the Commission’s job to do so.  If not the Pinelands will suffer the death of a thousand MOAs.  The Commission cannot sell out the Pinelands for a pipeline and power plant that will add more air and water pollution and promote fracking.  This process clearly violates the CMP and if they can get away with it for this project, they can do it for any project,” said Jeff Tittel, Director, NJ Sierra Club.

“The public outcry against this pipeline shows the public wants the Pinelands protected, not threatened with an unnecessary, destructive and risky project that will do little more than generate profits for private companies.  The Pinelands Commission needs to listen to the public and reject this Pipeline project,” said Jim Walsh, Eastern Regional Director for Food & Water Watch.

The stated rationale for this project includes the need to insure post-Sandy regional energy reliability by enabling the BL England power plant at Beesleys Point on the Great Egg Harbor to move into full-time operation.  “It is the height of folly to think this power plant, located just above sea-level and right on the water, should be our answer to rising sea levels and future storms.  How many such mistakes must we make before we learn?” observed Amy Karpati, Director for Conservation Science for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.”

David Pringle, NJ Campaign Director with Clean Water Action said “This pipeline will inflict a deep wound through the heart of an international jewel, the New Jersey Pinelands and this process puts the Commission under an ethical cloud. It would set a dangerous precedent by allowing private companies to profit at the public’s and Pinelands expense.”

Three air quality officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection appeared at the December 13th Pinelands Commission meeting and stated that this project will reduce air pollution by turning a coal-fired plant to one that runs on natural gas.  In fact, the real choice is between a gas-fired plant or no plant at all in that vulnerable site.  The argument that natural gas is cleaner than the coal and oil that have fired the BL England plant is seductive, but absolutely wrong in this case.  The state has already mandated that the plant cease operating altogether as a coal and oil plant.  For some years now, the plant has only operated sporadically for peak demand, at most 30-40 days a year, and soon it must close down completely.  If changed to natural gas and full operation, it will cause far more air pollution. 

Even if one accepts that the plant should be restarted, there are alternative routes for the pipeline that do not violate Pinelands regulations because they run through areas where infrastructure is permitted and encouraged by the Pinelands rules.  South Jersey Gas itself identified one of these routes, but does not favor them, apparently due to higher cost. 

“This massive gas pipeline would scar both the ecological heart of the Pinelands and the credibility of the Pinelands Commission,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “The Pinelands Commission is not the Economic Development Authority – it is not the Commission’s job to find a route for this pipeline.”

“When the Commission gives special exceptions for powerful players, it undermines the whole Pinelands protection project and raises the question why anyone should respect its decisions.  This will not be the last project looking for an exception to go through the Pinelands,” said Jaclyn Rhoads, Assistant Executive Director for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. 

“It is not the Commission’s responsibility to find a convenient route for the pipeline.  It is their job to protect the Pinelands,” said Mr. Montgomery.