“If you had storm drains, or pets, or houses, you’d be concerned about the 30 inch gas pipelines going within 15 feet of your home,” Paul Leodori told a New Jersey Appellate Court judge.
Even if the public is concerned, should they have a say in whether or not a gas pipeline can be built near their land?
This question is at the center of a nearly six year legal fight between local environmental groups, New Jersey Natural Gas (NJNG), the Pinelands Commission and several townships.
What is the pipeline?
After Hurricane Sandy hit the region in 2012, organizations that provide necessary resources were forced to re-evaluate their strength in the face of a natural disaster.
For New Jersey Natural Gas NJNG, this meant beginning to work on a pipeline that would serve as a back-up for its customers if its current pipeline failed.
“If something were to go wrong, a single source of interstate supply would be devastating to our customer base,” said Kevin Roberts, spokesperson for NJNG. “That’s really the vulnerability of our system that this project will in fact help guard against.”
The Southern Reliability Link (SRL) Pipeline was first introduced in 2015 and runs 30 miles, beginning in Chesterfield Township, Burlington County. It runs through Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, portions of the Pinelands and ends in Manchester Township, Ocean County.
In the years after the SRL was approved, there have been multiple legal challenges, several drilling leaks and a slew of environmental concerns.
The Pinelands Commission, one body responsible for approving or denying the SRL, was created to preserve and protect the Pinelands, according to its website.
“In reading the comprehensive management plan, it was very, very clear to us that the project as proposed would violate those laws,” said Rhyan Grech, policy advocate for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
It’s not unusual for the commission to approve infrastructure projects in the region, especially in the Pinelands’ development areas, but Grech said the pipeline was different.
The commission had voted to reject an application for the building of a separate South Jersey Gas pipeline before NJNG submitted its proposal. In the time between, two commissioners who had voted to deny the South Jersey Gas line were replaced with commissioners who would eventually vote in favor of NJNG.
“The commission at that point became politicized,” Grech said. “Up until that point, politics didn’t come into play in their decisions, they were all on board with the idea of protecting, preserving and enhancing the Pinelands National Reserve. Then, no votes were replaced with yes votes.”
Grech and the PPA also believe some commissioners had conflicts of interest that would interfere with the fair consideration of the pipeline.
Typically, the commission would provide copies of development applications to municipalities that are impacted — in this case, several townships in Burlington and Ocean Counties. However, these were not sent out for the SRL and townships and the public were denied hearings before the pipeline was approved.
“I think that it’s cruel, arbitrary and capricious,” argued Leodori, the attorney who represented PPA in an appeals court last month.
The Pinelands Commission argued that hearings are only required when a project would interfere with an individual or group’s constitutional or statutory rights, which was not the case for any of the groups involved. The pipeline’s route does not go directly through any individual’s property.
The Board of Public Utilities (BPU), which also has to approve the pipeline, denied local governments that would be affected from intervening in its hearing on pipeline safety, including North Hanover, Chesterfield and Burlington County.
After some legal back and forth between the PPA, the Pinelands Commission and BPU over the lack of public input on the pipeline, the Pinelands Commission passed a resolution disallowing public comment on similar development projects in the future.
According to the PPA, this decision was made in a session that was closed to the public and did not take steps deemed necessary by the commission’s bylaws before it was adopted.
In January 2016, BPU gave NJNG the go-ahead to begin construction on the pipeline.
Two months later, the PPA, NJ Sierra Club, another environmental organization, North Hanover and Chesterfield appealed this decision. The PPA also appealed the commission’s resolution disallowing public comment, its approval of the pipeline and the Burlington County Board of Freeholders’ vote to allow road closures for the pipeline, claiming two members had conflicts of interest.
In a legal brief, the state Attorney General’s office claimed the Pinelands Commission had acted lawfully in all aspects, because a court direction made in 2017 allowed them to approve the pipeline without review from affected towns.
Building the Pipeline
In November 2018, NJNG began building the SRL in Ocean County.
The SRL runs through the Pinelands, the largest area of preserved wilderness on the East Coast. It’s home to species not found anywhere else in the world and an underground aquifer that provides drinking water to millions of people living nearby.
In June 2020, an Upper Freehold woman heard an explosion in her home. She found that her foundation, basement floor and walls had been cracked — all caused by a drilling blowout as the SRL was being installed. She was told to evacuate her home for safety reasons.
These kinds of incidents, what NJNG spokesperson Roberts called “inadvertent returns,” are not rare when drilling. When pressurized mud is pushed through the ground, Roberts said, sometimes it gets through natural cracks and flows past the drilling point.
Inadvertent returns have occurred several times in the building of the SRL, including in areas of the Pinelands. Roberts said NJNG has reported all incidents and participated in “remediation,” or cleaning up the spills.
Before construction, the pipeline had to get environmental approval from the Pinelands Commission. Its current route was created to minimize environmental impact, Roberts said.
Since 2018, Burlington County filed two cease and desist orders on the pipeline, one after the Upper Freeholder woman’s home was condemned and another after NJNG began drilling under bridges without permits.
In July, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection suspended some of NJNG’s permits, which forced the company to halt drilling operations. NJNG is still able to continue trenching, another way of constructing the pipeline.
“There were a lot of concerns about the construction process, essentially agitating and stirring up all of those contaminants,” said PPA’s Grech. “Having those plumes of contamination moving and getting into the aquifer can impact the drinking water for people.”
“Those sort of environmental assessments were not adequately completed during the application process,” she added.
Back in court
Last month, the New Jersey Appellate Court began hearing oral arguments from the PPA, NJNG, the Pinelands Commission and other parties on the many lawsuits filed related to the pipeline.
Arguments for the last of this litigation will take place on April 13, when a panel of three judges will likely rule on all of the cases.
“So at this point, we wait,” Grech said.