TRENTON — A divided Pinelands Commission on Thursday approved construction of the Southern Reliability Link natural gas pipeline through Burlington, Monmouth and Ocean counties.

Thursday’s 8-4 vote for the Southern Reliability Link was the second to be approved by the commission. South Jersey Gas’ Cape Atlantic Reliability Project, a 22-mile pipeline from Maurice River Township, Cumberland County, to Upper Township, Cape May County, was approved Feb. 24.

With the latest approval, New Jersey Natural Gas can move forward toward constructing the channel, though a threatened Sierra Club lawsuit could delay it until next year.

NJNG spokesman Michael Kinney said the link would enhance the resiliency of its system, to comply with the comprehensive management plan, to make sure that it benefits Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst with “minimum impact to the environment.”

Commissioners Candace McKee Ashmun, Mark Lohbauer, Richard Prickett and D’Arcy Rohan Green voted against the project.

Vice Chairman Paul Galletta, of Atlantic County, and Commissioner William Brown, of Cape May County, joined with Chairman Sean Earlen and Commissioners Alan Avery, Giuseppe Chila, Jane Jannarone, Edward McGlinchey and Gary Quinn in voting for the pipeline.

Commissioner Bob Barr was not present and Edward Lloyd recused himself.

Protesters at the meeting blew slide whistles, yelled toward the stage and held Pinocchio noses to their faces in moments of passion. Many believe the plan will disrupt the ecosystem in the preserved area and fear that the customers intended to benefit from the energy source will actually suffer because of it.

This construction would “threaten an internationally significant natural area and source of drinking water for over 1 million people,” said Tom Gilbert, campaign director of ReThink Energy.

“It’s continuing more of the bad precedent of pushing through fossil fuel infrastructure in environmentally sensitive areas,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said.

The Sierra Club said it plans to sue the commission, accusing the panel of failing to comply with the procedure to host a public hearing with adequate notice and violating the comprehensive management plan.

While Christopher Bohlke of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 agreed that taking environmental factors into account is critical when analyzing energy sources, he said most claims made by opponents of the resolution about the NJNG pipeline are “totally false.”

“They really don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “I’ve worked on these jobs. There is no disruption to the drinking water. There is a pipe in the ground, and that’s it. How could they know if they have never worked on a pipeline before?”

Bohlke, a Chatsworth resident, emphasized the lack of natural gas in the Pinelands.

“We solely depend on heating oil,” he said. “Heating oil leaks into the ground, the tanks rust, it’s inefficient and doesn’t burn clean. Natural gas burns clean. It would greatly improve the air quality, and that would protect the aquifer.”

The aquifer’s 17 trillion gallons of water would be put at “high risk” because the pipe will wear down and leak gas into the groundwater supply, according to Georgina Shanley of Don’t Gas the Pinelands.

“I’m absolutely appalled with the decision by the commissioners today,” she added. “It’s a 30-mile, 30-inch-wide, 700-PSI pressured pipeline that’s coming with fracked gas for export, most likely.”

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609-272-7238 wkeough@pressofac.com

@buzzkeough

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