CHERRY HILL — The Pinelands Commission approved the South Jersey Gas pipeline Friday in a raucous meeting in front of several hundred people, with opponents chanting and interrupting with shouts and songs.
A chorus of voices repeatedly shouted, “No! No! No!” and “Do the right thing!” along with a simple “USA! USA! USA!” that went on for several minutes each and seemed designed to both send a message and delay the vote.
Signs hovered by the dozens over the crowd, declaring “Protect the Pinelands” and “Protect the Aquifer.”
But there was no stopping the vote, although the audience could not hear how each commissioner voted because of crowd noise.
The vote was nine in favor and five opposed. There was one abstention from the new commissioner representing the federal Department of the Interior, who said he didn’t feel he had adequate information to vote.
The 22-mile pipeline is slated to run from Maurice River Township to Beesleys Point in Upper Township, where it will deliver natural gas to convert the B.L. England electric generating station from coal and oil and remain open.
It would travel through 10 miles of protected Pinelands Forest Area, under pavement and along existing roads.
The New Jersey Sierra Club and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance are already suing to stop the pipeline. After the vote, they vowed more lawsuits.
The more vocal members of the crowd were clearly opposed to the pipeline. But others, such as former Commissioner Jay Mounier, who comes to almost every commission meeting and has been an advocate for protection of the Pinelands for decades, said the emphasis on the pipeline was taking attention away from pressing issues of protection.
“I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said of the pipeline.
The meeting was held in the Crowne Plaza Philadelphia-Cherry Hill in the Grand Ballroom. The ballroom seats about 1,500, and at the height of proceedings it was almost full.
B.L. England plant owner RC Cape May Holdings released a statement expressing happiness with the vote and the desire to be good environmental stewards.
A statement from Folsom-based South Jersey Gas said the commission’s action on what it calls the Cape Atlantic Reliability Project “recognizes the energy reliability challenges facing southern New Jersey and the balanced solution this project offers.”
The company said it would carefully construct the pipeline to “address the energy demands of 142,000 customers in Cape May and Atlantic counties, protect and create jobs, and provide a meaningful opportunity to significantly reduce air emissions while supporting the state’s Energy Master Plan.”
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, released a statement of his support, saying opponents had threatened him.
“I want to thank the commissioners who voted to approve the project. They had the courage to do what they thought was right, despite the threats to their safety and harassment they endured during this tumultuous process,” said VanDrew. “This type of intimidation, which was also directed at me, is deplorable.”
He said building the pipeline will create a cleaner and more reliable system of energy delivery.
Public comment was over on the application before Friday, so audience members couldn’t speak before the vote. Instead they chanted “This is what democracy looks like!” as well as singing “This Land is Your Land.”
The commission held a meeting last month to take comments and extended the period for written comments into February.
Commissioner Mark Lohbauer, the former chairman who voted against the pipeline at the last vote in January 2014 when it was narrowly defeated, moved to table the pipeline resolution early in the meeting.
That motion failed 10-5.
All local commissioners for Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties voted in support of the pipeline.
They include Atlantic County representative and blueberry farmer Paul Galletta; Cumberland County representative and real estate agent Jane Jannarone; Cape May County representative William Brown, a real estate and insurance broker; Ocean County representative and retired county executive Alan Avery; and gubernatorial appointee Bob Barr, a community activist for the disabled, of Ocean City.
None of the commissioners who voted for the pipeline spoke about their votes, although Galletta said he had enough information to vote Friday after years of hearing from all sides.
Lohbauer spoke extensively about why he felt the pipeline would not meet rules in the commission’s Comprehensive Management Plan, saying the electricity generated would not go to Pinelands homes and 60 percent of the cost of the pipeline is being paid by South Jersey Gas ratepayers, the vast majority of whom do not live in the Pinelands, with B.L. England paying only 40 percent.
The CMP says public infrastructure can only be installed in Forest Area if it primarily benefits only the Pinelands.
Lohbauer acknowledged the wording of that requirement is problematic but said the pipeline would not meet even the lesser standard of “primarily” benefitting the Pinelands.