The battle over the expansion of natural-gas pipelines continues to generate new litigation, with landowners filing suit to stop PennEast from trespassing on their property in an effort to survey possible routes for the project.
The lawsuit, filed by seven landowners and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, is the latest by foes of the 118-mile pipeline, which has triggered opposition on both sides of the Delaware River in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Access to the landowners’ property, and in at least one instance, a 25-acre preserve in Hunterdon County, is crucial if PennEast if going to win regulatory approval of its $1 billion pipeline. The project will deliver natural gas from Luzerne County, PA, cross underneath the Delaware River, and end near Trenton in Mercer County.
Related story: FERC LETTER TO PENNEAST
Gaining access to possible pipeline routes has been denied by approximately 70 percent of the landowners whose property the project would cross, causing repeated delays in securing permit approvals from the state Department of Environmental Protection in New Jersey and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington.
This past Friday, the federal agency sent a letter to PennEast giving it 15 days to submit complete information on the project, which FERC needs to review. The project is one of about 15 approved or pending new pipeline expansions in New Jersey.
The PennEast project would bring cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formations in Pennsylvania to consumers and businesses in New Jersey, a trend that has dramatically lowered heating and manufacturing costs here.
The pipeline, however, is widely opposed in both states, primarily because it will expand the use of fossil fuels contributing to climate change and also crisscross private and publicly preserved lands.
In a statement, Pat Kornick, a spokeswoman for PennEast Pipeline Company, said the lawsuit is not unique and demonstrates “the great lengths that those opposed to the project will go to try and discredit the many environmental, practical and economic benefits’’ it will deliver.
But opponents said the company’s actions are unlawful and reflect repeated acts of trespassing in Hunterdon and Mercer counties.
“We are seeking an injunction against PennEast for trespassing on preserved and private lands, and are asking the courts to prevent PennEast from using illegally obtained data in their effort to seek regulators’ approval for an unneeded and damaging pipeline,’’ said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
Surveyors from PennEast for the past year and one half have been sneaking or blatantly walking on landowners’ property, according to T.C. Buchanan, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which seeks an injunction.
“I would leave my home and get calls from neighbors that they were back,’’ Buchanan said. “All this has happened while PennEast continues to broadcast their outright false claims that they are working with homeowners.’’
Steven Richardson, an attorney representing the homeowners, said the threat of additional trespasses is growing as the company faces the deadline for conducting the surveys.
PennEast said it will defend itself against the lawsuit, but did urge landowners to contact the company if they believe there has been a trespassing incident. “There is certainly no systemic pattern of PennEast violating landowner property rights,’’ Kornick said. All four gas utilities in New Jersey are sponsors of the PennEast project.
The lawsuit is the latest involving a pipeline project in New Jersey. Environmental groups have filed separate litigation challenging approval of two other pipeline projects in the Pinelands in South Jersey in the past few weeks.
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.