New Jersey Pinelands panel OKs another natural gas pipeline

A government panel on Thursday approved a plan to construct another natural gas pipeline in New Jersey's Pinelands, despite criticism that both would threaten the environment.

The New Jersey Pinelands Commission' vote was 8 to 4, with one abstention. The panel's director in 2015 had unilaterally approved the application, but courts ruled the full commission must vote.

The Sierra Club and other groups challenged the New Jersey Natural Gas project, known as the southern reliability link, saying the 30-mile (48-kilometer) pipeline would destroy environmentally sensitive land and threaten communities along its route in Burlington, Ocean and Monmouth counties.

New Jersey Natural Gas said the project would provide a backup source of natural gas to more than 1 million people.

About half the pipeline would run through Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and approval was largely tied to whether the project would benefit the base.

The Burlington County Times reported development rules permit utility infrastructure through the pines on the military installation provided it is associated with the function of the base.

The base commanders have said it would benefit from the proposed gas supply redundancy.

"The base commanders believe they need it," commissioner Paul Galletta said before voting yes.

However, commissioner Mark Lohbauer disagreed.

"The record indicates it will not provide gas to the base," he said. "It merely passes under it."

The Pinelands National Reserve is made up of oak-pine forests, berry farms, wetlands and various plants.

The commission in February voted to approve a different plan by South Jersey Gas to run a 22-mile (35-kilometer) pipeline through the preserve that is designed to help a power plant in southern New Jersey switch from coal to gas.

Environmental groups have appealed approval of that project, which has been hotly contested. The area is home to an aquifer that is estimated to hold 17 trillion gallons (64 trillion liters) of some of the nation's purest water.