This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.
A state Appellate Court on Thursday rejected an appeal by two environmental groups to halt construction of a natural-gas pipeline in South Jersey, saying there’s no evidence that the nearly complete project will hurt groundwater quality, damage endangered species, or conflict with the principles that govern the management of Pinelands preserve.
The court dismissed arguments by the New Jersey Sierra Club and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance that the Pinelands Commission, which manages the region, was wrong in 2017 to approve the Southern Reliability Link — a 30-mile New Jersey Natural Gas pipeline that runs east from Chesterfield to near Lakehurst.
The court upheld the commission’s arguments that the pipeline would not conflict with the Comprehensive Management Plan, a document that governs land use, development, and natural resources protection in the Pinelands, rejecting claims by the environmentalists.
A three-judge panel also supported the commission’s conclusions that there was no alternative route for the pipeline through the Pinelands; that building the pipeline through about 10 miles of the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst would be consistent with the base’s functions; and that the pipeline would not damage forested wetlands.
Pipeline no threat to rare plant
And it accepted the commission’s finding that the pipeline poses no threat to the sickle-leaved golden aster, a rare plant, if construction avoided horizontal directional drilling, and used conventional bore drilling instead.
“After considering all of NJNG’s submissions, including surveys, maps, and changes to the planned construction, the commission’s staff concluded, ‘that the proposed-natural gas pipeline will be constructed almost entirely within existing rights-of-way and roads, the proposed project will not result in irreversible adverse impact on the survival of the local population of this species,’” the court wrote, in a 39-page opinion.
The appeals court ruling comes the day after the Murphy administration argued in the U.S. Supreme Court that PennEast had no right to use eminent domain to take more than 40 parcels of state land for construction of the long-delayed pipeline.
Jeff Tittel, the soon-to-retire director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said Murphy’s support for the pipeline through the Pinelands is at odds with his opposition to the PennEast project, which would pump gas from Pennsylvania to a terminal in Mercer County. If the pipeline is built, it would transfer some of its payload to the Southern Reliability Link.
“If New Jersey opposes PennEast, then why are they supporting a pipeline that would take PennEast gas and cut through the Pinelands?” Tittel asked.
Murphy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Court rejects ‘substantial’ issues
The court said the New Jersey Sierra Club and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance had raised issues of “substantial importance” but it rejected all of them. They included a claim by the PPA that the commission’s approval of the project was invalidated by two of its members having what the group argued was a conflict of interest. The court said it was satisfied that the members did not have any personal or financial interest in the pipeline that would prevent them participating in the approval.
And it rejected an argument by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance that the pipeline was not associated with the “function” of the Joint Base. The court said the pipeline would provide a reliable source of gas to the base that could be used in the event of a service breakdown from other sources.
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance blasted the ruling, accusing the court of “slavish deference” to the bad environmental decisions of state agencies.
Executive director Carleton Montgomery said the Pinelands Commission has been unable to defend the region from “politically powerful developers” after being weakened by former Gov. Chris Christie. More recently, several seats have been left unfilled by Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, and some commissioners, he said, have shown “no interest” in conservation.
“So we cannot rely on the Pinelands Commission, the Governor, the Senate, the Department of Environmental Protection or even the courts to protect the Pinelands from demonstrably harmful and needless construction like this pipeline,” Montgomery said. The commission declined to comment.
But New Jersey Resources, the parent of New Jersey Natural Gas, welcomed the court’s decision. “These rulings affirm that the SRL project was properly approved by regulatory bodies,” said spokesman Kevin Roberts. “Once construction is completed and it is placed into service later this year, it will bring significant reliability and resiliency benefits to over one million people in Monmouth, Ocean and Burlington counties.”
Tittel said there have been 22 spills and leaks during pipeline construction, which is expected to end in about a month. The court earlier denied a request by the appellants to halt construction while the appeal was heard.
In its appeal, the Sierra Club argued that the commission was wrong to conclude the pipeline would have no impact on endangered species and should not have relied on the gas company’s assessment of the risk of accidents. The environmental group also claimed that the commission “arbitrarily and capriciously” decided that the need for a pipeline in the Pinelands outweighed the need to protect wetlands.