Emails show Pinelands panel helped streamline gas pipeline proposal, activists claim

 New Jersey Natural Gas has proposed a 30-mile natural gas pipeline to run through Burlington, Monmouth and Ocean counties. It would go through Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. (New Jersey Natural Gas)

New Jersey Natural Gas has proposed a 30-mile natural gas pipeline to run through Burlington, Monmouth and Ocean counties. It would go through Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. (New Jersey Natural Gas)

Opponents of the proposed Southern Reliability Link natural gas pipeline are raising a litany of concerns with the project, including questions about the extent to which the pipeline is safe.

New emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that even when some of the project’s backers in South Jersey voiced doubts, they were dismissed by New Jersey Natural Gas employees.

That’s one of several revelations laid bare in a series of emails between NJNG and officials at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. Part of the pipeline would travel through the base.

The emails also shed light on how NJNG, which is proposing the project, coordinated planning of the 30-mile main with the Pinelands Commission, the independent state agency that reviews any development project in the 1.1 million-acre natural reserve.

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The emails “show that NJNG is not revealing the whole truth about the intentions of this pipeline,” said Lena Smith, the South Jersey organizer for Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group that plans to release the emails.

“If this is one instance where they’re not giving all of the information, who knows where else they have also misled the public about the pipeline?”

But while the correspondence shows the inner workings of an energy company trying to push through a pipeline project, it does not appear to show any illegal activity on the part of NJNG. And it fails to provide any proof that the gas company has deceived the public about the project.

Safety concerns

The 30-mile pipeline, proposed to carry natural gas through Burlington, Monmouth and Ocean counties, was conceived as a backup supply source in response to increased customer use and infrastructure damage sustained during Superstorm Sandy.

Because it would travel through the Joint Base, military officials have been involved in the planning of the pipeline.

In an email dated Oct. 14, 2014, an official with the base asked an NJNG employee whether building a natural gas pipeline so close to a testing site for new aircraft-launching technology would pose any danger.

“Concern on the mission integrity if an explosion or a gas leak, which could be catastrophic. Can you inquire into the blast radius or recommended clear zones if this main was to give away in the test area?” the base official said.

A day later, an NJNG employee (email addresses and names have been redacted from the emails, which were obtained by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance through a FOIA request) forwarded the email to a colleague, downplaying the military official’s concerns and appearing to ask the colleague to provide safety information that would put an end to the questioning.

“I just got this inquiry yesterday from the Navy people in the Lakehurst side. I think it is a stupid question, but I’d like to get your input, as if it is answered thoughtfully (which I can’t do!), it will make the conversation die off,” the NJNG employee wrote.

After a week, the colleague responded to the original message, saying no such recommendations exist.

“As a simple answer to your question, there is no ‘blast radius’ or ‘clear zone’ calculation that I know of. That term typically is used by anti-pipeline groups who are looking to raise fear of a pipeline installation,” said the employee, who goes on to describe the stringent “class 4” safety standards this pipeline would face.

According to Smith of Food and Water Watch, NJNG should be able to calculate a “potential impact radius” using the maximum allowable pressure of the pipeline (722 psi) and the diameter of the main (30 inches), enabling the base to plan more accurately for any accidents that may occur along the pipeline.

But when asked about the emails, including the characterization by an NJNG employee of a safety inquiry as a “stupid question,” NJNG communications director Michael Kinney said it was difficult to make sense of the messages.

“I can’t speak to the specific emails because I know that they’ve been cherry-picked and it looks like they’ve been cobbled together, so what the context is I really can’t tell you,” he said.

Kinney said he did not know who specifically wrote the emails.

He noted that the base commander had signed a letter endorsing the pipeline as beneficial to the base, which was included in NJNG’s application to the Pinelands Commission, suggesting that whatever doubts the base had at the outset had been resolved.

“Safety is our top priority,” Kinney said, adding that the SRL pipeline is “consistent with our goal of providing a responsible route that minimizes the impact to communities, the built environment, as well as the natural environment.”

Streamlining the application

In addition to coordinating with the base, municipalities, and county governments in the early stages of planning the SRL pipeline, NJNG also reached out to the Pinelands Commission, which would have to approve the company’s project application.

In one email, an NJNG employee tells an official at the base that the Pinelands Commission suggested in a May 2014 meeting that the natural gas company reroute the pipeline through the base to make the application process easier.

“They suggested that we approach you to see if we could reroute the line through your base,” the NJNG employee wrote.

“They believe that this new route along with a letter from the base that the presence of the pipeline would be a positive attribute to future base activities could streamline their process,” the employee added.

In another email a month later, an NJNG employee said, “[w]e proposed an alternate route after a possible change in route was suggested in a meeting with the Pinelands Commission.”

Smith said this suggests that the Pinelands Commission counseled NJNG on how best to pitch its proposed pipeline to achieve the smoothest approval by the commission.

“The Pinelands Commission staff have actually given advice that will allow for [NJNG] to build the pipeline through the Pinelands and streamline the process,” said Smith.

But Pinelands Commission executive director Nancy Wittenberg, who attended the May 2014 meeting, said the email’s characterization of what happened is flat wrong.

“We don’t have a streamlined process for anything,” she said.

According to Wittenberg, a private development application either meets the Pinelands Commission’s rules or it doesn’t. When an application does meet the rules, it goes through the standard application process. When it does not, the commission devotes extra time and scrutiny to deciding whether to grant an exception for that particular application.

Wittenberg said what more likely happened in the meeting was that the commission told NJNG that any proposed routes that went through preserved forest area would be more difficult to approve than routes that went through the base.

She said it is common practice for the commission to “state the facts to people” who are preparing a development application.

“If you came in and wanted to build your house, and we said ‘Well, it looks to us like you’re gonna build your house in wetlands. We don’t allow that. Why don’t you consider building your house on the other side of the parcel?’ That’s what we do when people come in,” Wittenberg said. “We try to show them how their project can achieve consistency with our rules.”

The Pinelands Commission is still considering the pipeline application, but Wittenberg said it is “fairly close” to completing its review.

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