The state Board of Public Utilities voted 3-0 Wednesday to allow the South Jersey Gas pipeline project to proceed without oversight by local zoning boards.
It was the final decision needed by the BPU, and the Pinelands Commission process is also complete, said commission spokesman Paul Leakan.
The commission's Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg has reviewed all public comment, testimony and other documents the BPU received and determined the project continues to meet her agency's Comprehensive Management Plan, so no further commission commission action is required, he said.
Ocean City residents Georgina Shanley and Steven Fenichel, 67, vocal opponents of the pipeline, said they were disappointed but not surprised at the outcome.
“This is not only irresponsible to the people of New Jersey but contributes disastrous consequences for the entire planet,” said Shanley, co-founder of Citizens United for Renewable Energy (CURE).
The pipeline will allow the B.L. England Electric Generating Station in Upper Township to convert from oil and coal to a natural gas plant, to meet air quality standards required by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Some locals have stressed the need to keep the plant open to preserve jobs, continue to generate electricity locally, and maintain the plant’s support of the Upper Township budget. But environmentalists have said the pipeline could potentially damage the sensitive Pinelands area and have threatened lawsuits over it.
Board Chair Richard Mroz gave a long list of reasons why he voted in favor of allowing the pipeline, which would pass through 10 miles of protected Pinelands Forest Area, to proceed without going before local planning or zoning boards.
“I know there were some very strong opinions, especially environmental concerns raised,” said Mroz. But he said Wednesday’s decision was strictly about whether local zoning and planning approvals are necessary under the state’s municipal land use laws.
He said he found the evidence persuasive that the pipeline was reasonably necessary for the service, convenience or welfare of the public, and that was the standard it had to meet for the board to skip the local process. He also said public officials in the municipalities through which the pipeline would pass had either expressed support for it or had not expressed opposition.
BPU Commissioner Joseph L. Fiordaliso, who had conducted the public hearings on the matter in Upper Township, was absent and Commissioner Upendra Chivukula recused himself from the vote.
The board relied on the Department of Environmental Protection and the Pinelands Commission to deal with environmental issues, Mroz said.
Reactions were mixed Wednesday following the vote.
“We are pleased to receive this approval from the BPU and appreciate their ongoing acknowledgement of the need for this critical project for southern New Jersey,” said SJ Gas spokesman Dan Lockwood. “We will now review the order in detail and determine our next steps.”
“I’m ecstatic with the positive news coming from the BPU vote in favor of the project,” said Steve Humanick, 47, an Avalon resident and IBEW Local 210 union representative at the B.L. England Generating Station.
“It’s common sense for the majority of people to realize this is a win-win for everybody involved,” he said, noting that the conversion of the plant to natural gas was the least costly alternative among available options and that Rockland Capital, the Texas-based owner of the plant, was committed to investing in the upgrade in this area.
Jeff Tittel, of New Jersey Sierra Club, said his group plans to sue the Pinelands Commission over what it considers Wittenberg’s wrongful designation of the pipeline as a private development not requiring a vote of the Pinelands Commissioners. He would ask for a stay of all action on the pipeline in that suit, he said.
By treating it as a private development application the second time it applied to the commission, Wittenberg was able to give the project a certificate of filing to proceed without a public hearing or input from commissioners.
The commissioners narrowly voted down the company's first application as a public development in January 2014.
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance has already appealed an earlier pipeline order by the board, and its Executive Director Carlton Montgomery said the alliance is considering an appeal of this one as well.
BPU spokesman J. Gregory Reinert said the Attorney General’s Office is handling the appeals process and he does not know if the appeals will, on their own, keep the pipeline from moving forward.
BPU staff directed the board to consider only evidence provided under oath, which did not include comments given at public hearings and during comment periods by members of the public.
According to BPU Executive Director Paul Flanagan, the only hard evidence in the case was that given by South Jersey Gas experts at an Oct. 21 evidentiary hearing on whether local land use boards can be left out of the process.
Flanagan said other comments were opinions.
Environmentalists said that proved the board had its mind made up in favor of the pipeline and did not listen to the public.
But Mroz and Commissioner Diane Solomon both stressed they had reviewed all public comments pro and con thoroughly.
The pipeline would be constructed along a 22-mile route from Maurice River Township to Beesley’s Point in Upper Township along roadsides and railroad right-of-ways.
The BPU had voted three times before on the project and issued three prior orders. In April 2013 it approved a gas service agreement between the utility and the plant, allocating costs for the pipeline’s construction. In June 2013 it approved the proposed route and deemed it safe for those who live along it, and reconsidered the route again with a positive vote in July 2015 after the company moved the location of an interconnection station and added language banning hook-ins to the pipeline in Pinelands Forest Area.
The July 2015 order is the other one the Pinelands alliance has appealed.
The BPU is also in the process of considering a second pipeline, this one through the northern part of the Pinelands National Reserve that is proposed by New Jersey Natural Gas. It, however, does not travel through protected Forest Area so the company did not have to show it would mainly benefit the Pinelands. The Pinelands Commission recently gave that pipeline a certificate of filing to proceed, and it is expected to seek permission from the BPU to skip the local land use approval process as well.