TRENTON — Several environmental groups called on Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday to fulfill his campaign pledge to appoint new Pinelands Commissioners who will better protect the 1.1 million acre preserve.
Some called for Murphy to also replace Pinelands Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg, dubbing her “pro development,” at a news conference on the steps of the State House.
“The first thing Murphy should have done was to remove Sean Earlen as Chair and replace him with an environmentalist,” said N.J. Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel. “ He had the authority to do this on day one, and he also has the ability to nominate seven commissioners but has nominated none.”
Earlen is the Burlington County appointee, not a gubernatorial appointee, but he could be replaced as chair by Murphy, the groups said.
About 5,000 people signed a petition supporting a change to the Pinelands Commission leadership, said Pinelands Preservation Alliance Deputy Director Jaclyn Rhoads, who was delivering petitions to the governor Monday afternoon.
The Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer lies under the Pinelands, and it provides drinking water for 17 million people and must be protected, according to the groups.
Rhoads said her organization heard Monday from Murphy, who said he is instructing his staff to do the work needed to move appointments forward.
“We are hoping something will be done by the end of the year,” said Rhoads. Appointees will need to be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate.
Tittel said Gov. Chris Christie “stacked the Pinelands Commission with pro-development cronies so he could push through dangerous projects including pipelines.”
However, some of the strongest voices for preservation on the commission are gubernatorial appointees Mark Lohbauer, Candace Ashmun and Edward Lloyd.
And the seven county appointees have voted to support controversial projects, including the most recent vote for a South Jersey Gas pipeline to the B.L. England plant, more often than have the seven gubernatorial appointees. Only two of the gubernatorial appointees — Ocean City Councilman Bob Barr and Lacey Township Committeeman Gary Quinn — voted for the pipeline, for example, which all seven county appointees supported.
There is also a federal appointee to represent the interests of the U.S. Park Service, as the Pinelands are a national and state preserve.
Other groups participating in the news conference included the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, Environment New Jersey, People Over Pipelines, Food and Water Watch and Clean Water Action.
The Sierra Club and others have sued the state over the commission’s vote to allow South Jersey Gas to build a 22-mile pipeline from Maurice River Township to Beesleys Point in Upper Township. It would allow the B.L. England power plant there to repower using natural gas rather than coal and oil it operated on for decades.
Rhoads said commission staff has worked in recent years to shut the public out of key decision-making steps.
She said the most recent example is the staff’s effort to stop third parties from appealing a recommendation by Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg to allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to clear cut about 16 acres of pines around the Bass River State Forest fire tower to improve visibility for fire spotters.
The pipeline was opposed by many environmentalists but supported by many local officials as a way to bring jobs to the region and keep the power plant operational.
Recently the mayor of Upper Township announced the plant is being decommissioned as a coal and oil plant. The plant is no longer needed by PJM Interconnection so is being allowed to shut down.
It is unclear if the company still intends to convert it to a natural gas plant. No one from the company that owns it, RC Cape May Holdings, has responded to calls for comment.
But State Senator Jeff Van Drew said Friday he believes the company is considering all of its options and has not yet made a decision.
If the company intended to abandon the natural gas conversion it would have let him know, he said.