GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) -- The age-old jobs-versus-the-environment clash is playing out again, this time in the New Jersey Pinelands, a million-acre spread of protected woods and wetlands that happens to be in the way of a proposed pipeline to fuel an old coal-burning power plant with natural gas.
South Jersey Gas wants to build a 22-mile pipeline through the Pinelands to connect with the BL England power plant in Cape May County.
Environmentalists object to the plan, saying it will damage pristine woodlands that, by law, cannot be touched for such projects. But supporters want the jobs the project would bring, and the utility warns that southern New Jersey customers could be left out in the cold without a second means of getting gas to their homes.
Both sides voiced their opinions — loudly and often— at a public hearing Monday that came as some of the Pinelands Commission members appear to be having second thoughts about the proposal, which has the support of New Jersey's Board of Public Utilities. The commission had scheduled a Jan. 10 vote on the plan, although action could be taken as soon as the end of this week.
"What once seemed like a sure thing that would be rubber-stamped, has now turned into a major battle line in the battle against 'fracking' and climate change, and for protection of our national and state parks," said Capt. Joel Fogel, president of Waterwatch International. Natural gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing is a major concern to environmentalists, but has boosted supplies and dropped the price of natural gas in the eastern U.S.
He said the 24-inch pipeline would be buried 50 feet into the soil, over a sensitive 10,000-year-old, 17 trillion gallon aquifer that supplies water to most of southern New Jersey.
Part of the problem is that Pinelands rules dictate that projects such as the proposed pipeline must primarily benefit residents or businesses within the Pinelands zone; most of the pipeline's customers are outside the area.
Under a memorandum of agreement, South Jersey Gas would pay $8 million to a Pinelands fund to help clear the project's final hurdle. The deal would, in effect, exempt the pipeline from a ban on new transmission lines in the 1.1-million-acre Pinelands reserve.
The pipeline would run from Maurice River Township in Cumberland County to the BL England plant in Upper Township. The state has ordered the plant converted or closed permanently to end pollution violations.
"The offer of $8 million from South Jersey Gas is for the soul of the Pinelands," said Georgina Shanley, an environmental activist from Ocean City, near the power plant. "Is it worth it?"
Carlton Montgomery of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance said the Pinelands Commission has its priorities wrong.
"The commission's mandate is not to help individual corporations implement their preferred business plans," he said. "It is to protect the Pinelands."
William Tracy of Haddonfield said the plan shows a contempt for lands that the federal and state governments have decided should be protected.
"A pressurized pipeline shuttling toxic hydrocarbons seems especially contrary to the concept of a conserved natural area," he said.
But others see the plan as a source of new jobs and more energy. Jeff Pattison of Absecon is a retired engineer who worked on pipeline projects for 40 years.
"I love the woods, I love to hunt," he said. "I don't want to destroy the environment. We look at this as a source of jobs and gas that will burn much more cleanly at the power plant. Everyone needs electricity."
"A year after they dig it, you won't even know it's there," said Jim Laughlin Sr. of Galloway, another retired pipeline worker. "It'll give our people a lot of jobs, and that's really important today."
Robert Marshall, executive director of the NJ Energy Coalition, said the pipeline is crucial to keeping the Cape May County power plant open, particularly with the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station due to shut down at the end of the decade.
"The bottom line is we need BL England," he said. "We need a reliable electrical supply, and we need natural gas infrastructure for the greater availability of it."
Wayne Parry can be reached at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC