GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Dozens of environmental advocates and area residents strongly condemned a draft plan that would allow a 22-mile natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands in exchange for $8 million from the pipeline’s owner, South Jersey Gas. More than 200 people packed into a public hearing held in the courtroom at the Galloway Township Municipal Building on Monday. Several dozen were not allowed to enter the room at the peak of the hearing because of fire code restrictions.

By 8 p.m., nearly 75 people had spoken, with dozens more still waiting.

Advocates warned that building a pipeline would cause significant damage to the environment, the plan lacks an independent environmental impact study, and the draft memorandum of agreement itself had the appearance of a conflict of interest and potentially violated the Pinelands Commission’s own rules.

“There’s a lot of political money and political muscle being brought to bear,” said Eric Sauder. “(The agreement) is really a waiver because it waives the terms of the management agreement and it should be treated as such.”

The agreement, which would be between South Jersey Gas, the Board of Public Utilities and the Pinelands Commission, calls for a payment of $8 million, with $7.25 million going toward land preservation and $750,000 going to pay for education programs and a new visitor’s center at the commission’s headquarters in New Lisbon, Burlington County.

The proposed pipeline would travel 22 miles from a pipeline junction in Maurice River Township near Millville to the B.L. England power plant in Beesleys Point, Upper Township. Most of the route traverses existing road right of ways, and workers would use a specialized drilling technique to build the line under wetlands and waterways.

South Jersey Gas spokesman Dan Lockwood said the rumors that, in the future, the pipeline could be used to export liquefied natural gas are not true and that construction would not create a wide disturbance along both sides of the road.

Lockwood also said that the reason for redundancy measures — the project will back up existing natural gas supplies to the county — was the concern that if one part of a loop was damaged, 142,000 customers could be vulnerable to having no gas service until the line was fixed. The pipeline would help create a pipeline loop where gas could be piped in around any break in the line, he said.

Bob Marshall, executive director of the New Jersey Energy Coalition, said the pipeline is an important investment into the state’s energy infrastructure. “The time for improving New Jersey’s infrastructure and generation options is now,” he said. “The proposed pipeline is a step in the right direction and we support the MOA.”

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment NJ, said that by releasing the draft agreement the day before Thanksgiving and holding the public hearing 10 days later, the commission did not give the public enough time to learn about the issue.

Previous MOAs made it clear that the agreements would not set precedents, O’Malley said. However, he said, this agreement does not have that safeguard.

“This MOA calls into question … the Pinelands Commission and its integrity,” O’Malley said. “The more you dig into the MOA, the more squishy it gets.”

Will Pauls, president of the South Jersey Building Trades Council, said his organization supports the pipeline, not just because of the jobs it would create, but also because converting the coal-fired B.L. England plant to gas would be better for air quality. “We’ve talked for years to get gas in there,” he said. “We have the opportunity to do that right now.”

Pauls and other construction workers also said a pipeline was recently finished on Route 50 in Cape May County. “I ask anyone in this room to go up to that road and see where that gas line was,” Pauls said.

A cornerstone of the MOA’s environmental protection measures is setting aside $7.25 million of the $8 million payment for land acquisition for preservation near the pipeline’s route, said Chris Jage, an assistant director with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

However, Jage said, land preservation acquisitions require a two to one funding match, meaning the $7.25 million would need $14.5 million from other sources. “Right now there’s no state money,” he said. Major foundations, he said, rarely supply large amounts of funding to southern New Jersey and funding does not cover costs for surveys and other needs.

Jage said the conservation foundation examined the parcels along the route and found 95 percent of them were less than one acre in size. Smaller lots, he said, would require higher transaction costs.

“I would argue there’s a leap of faith that because this money is set aside that some land will be protected,” Jage said.

Margate resident Joel Fogel, who was representing multiple environmental groups, warned that groups already are preparing legal injunctions if the commission passes the MOA.

Contact Sarah Watson:

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Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.