TOMS RIVER – The bleachers of Pine Belt Arena were filled on July 26 with protesters and supporters of the Southern Reliability Link (SRL), a proposed 30-mile natural gas pipeline that would run through 12.1 miles of the Pinelands.
New Jersey Natural Gas is proposing the pipeline in order to ensure quality of service for roughly 1 million customers. But the scheduled public hearing brought up many concerns – such as potential spills that could endanger water supply and wipe out native plants and animals.
Representatives approached the microphone from various organizations spanning the state, including the New Jersey Sierra Club, Pinelands Preservation Alliance, Clean Water Action New Jersey, Green Party of New Jersey and ReThink Energy NJ.
There were concerned residents, too, including Jacqueline Cardini and Dom Stockton-Rossini.
Officials from the Pinelands Commission filled the dais. The Commission has previously said the pipeline is consistent with the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan – a set of regulations and standards that safeguard the area’s unique natural resources – although several speakers at the hearing questioned that throughout the morning.
A common theme brought up by speakers at the hearing was how the public portion of the application was being handled, which some referred to as a “made up process” and “a sham.” Speakers were limited to only three minutes of public comment before a buzzer sounded, signaling their time was up. Commenters who spoke over their allotted time were booed by audience members wearing SRL pins. Some of them also yelled, “time’s up!”
Another frequent thread was that the pipeline would serve no real military purpose, despite officials from the Pinelands Commission citing that Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst would be a primary beneficiary.
Jeff Tittel from the New Jersey Sierra Club kicked things off around 10 a.m. as the day’s first speaker, reminding the dais, “You’re the Pinelands Commission – not the Pipeline Commission.” He cited concern for the 17 trillion gallons of drinking water at stake, as well as plant species found nowhere else around the world. Tittel said that there are plenty of other ways to get gas down the shore, and that the proposed pipeline is really about bringing more development to the shore area. The “excuse” about the Joint Base, he said, is “made up,” and just a way to rationalize building the pipeline. “The damage that you do will last for a very long time,” he said, adding that if it gets built, “We sued you once, we’ll have to go back to court again.”
Carleton Montgomery represented the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a private, nonprofit group devoted to preserving the Pinelands, sharing, “It won’t even help the base, it’s so badly designed for the scenario for which it’s supposed to be justified.”
Janet Tauro, Board Chair of Clean Water Action New Jersey, spoke out strongly against the three-minute time restriction. “You hinder public participation when you limit this to three minutes. It really is a sham. It prevents us from bringing in our experts and giving expert testimony.” She added that if officials really cared about the public’s concerns, they would have scheduled the hearing after hours when people could come after work.
Tauro said Clean Water Action is opposed to the SRL pipeline.
“The Joint Base would not even be able to tap into it without major infrastructure work that New Jersey Natural Gas has no intention of doing,” she added.
She said the Pinelands are home to many threatened and endangered species, and that the pipeline poses a high risk to aquifers. She also directly questioned Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg – “You say it is under your standards, and your standards are to preserve, protect and enhance the Pinelands and the Comprehensive Management Plan,” she asked.
“A key element of the Comprehensive Management Plan, which also highlights the cornerstone of Clean Water Action, is water protection. The proposed pipeline would run through two superfund sites that require specific remediation by the EPA. And I can assure you that remediation does not include blasting and laying a 30-inch high pressure gas pipeline that can spread contaminants and threaten water supplies.”
Tauro said the SRL is also not being welcomed by the communities it is affecting.
“Neither has this pipeline being welcomed with open arms by host communities. It has formally been opposed through resolutions by seven townships, one city and a county.”
Those townships, she said, include Plumsted and Upper Freehold.
Heather Warburton from the Green Party of New Jersey told the dais she had a show for them to watch called “Views from the Pipeline.” She explained that it’s 15 to 20 images showcasing the beauty of the route that the proposed pipeline would take, “so you can see what’s really being put at stake here,” she said.
In a stretch of creativity, Warburton used the last minute and a half of her allotted three minutes to let the dais reflect on a simple question – “Why are you here, and what do you want to do?” During the moment of silence, protesters of the pipeline pushed their signs farther into the air and Warburton stared directly at officials on the dais, who seemed unfazed.
Dom Stockton-Rossini is from Pemberton, but was also representing his parents, residents of Long Beach Island. He quoted the figure of $9.2 million dollars, the estimated net profit New Jersey Natural Gas would make from the pipeline, according to a 2016 report on the Southern Reliability Link.
“$9.2 million dollars in corporate profits and the unnecessary risk on our properties, our environment and the future of our state,” he said. “It’s not a question of if there will be spills, it is when. Spills will happen and our environment will be threatened.”
A former New Jersey Natural Gas employee surprisingly spoke, sharing “8 fatal flaws” of the SRL application, which all centered around the pipeline serving no genuine military purpose.
“The pipeline will not directly deliver any dedicated gas to the base itself,” he said.
Toms River resident Jacqueline Cardini said she was representing babies, which took the audience some time to register, until she began to tell her story. Her sister Jessica contracted leukemia during the Toms River cancer cluster; her mother one of the major organizers of Ocean of Love, a nonprofit that helps Ocean County children with cancer. Although her sister survived, she described the horrific experience of witnessing many children in the same situation who did not.
“For those of you who want to tell me this is clean energy simply on the basis that it’s cleaner than coal, I tempt you to sit in your car while it’s running with the garage door closed,” she said.
Public comment was closed on August 2. It is now up to the Pinelands Commission to review the comments received and make a decision to approve or deny the application from New Jersey Natural Gas.