A New Jersey agency tasked with protecting the ecologically fragile Pinelands region narrowly defeated a proposal Friday to run a 22-mile natural gas pipeline through it.
The decision delighted environmentalists, who had turned out by the hundreds to oppose the plan over the past six months. But it disheartened business groups and union members who hoped to get work from the project.
The application touched off a classic jobs-versus-the environment clash in one of the most ecologically sensitive areas of the nation's most densely populated state.
"This is a great victory for the Pinelands and the environment of the region," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "Today the commissioners said the Pinelands are not for sale."
"The Pinelands is host to one of the last wildernesses in New Jersey," added Dan DeRosa of Environment New Jersey. "We're a tiny state packed with 8 million people, yet we still have wild spaces like the Pinelands."
The New Jersey Pinelands Commission rejected the proposal by South Jersey Gas, which had partnered with the state Board of Public Utilities, to connect a pipeline to the BL England power plant in Cape May County. The plant is switching from coal to natural gas.
But the commission deadlocked 7-7 on the proposal, meaning the measure didn't pass.
Stacey Roth, the commission's attorney, said the applicant can ask the commission to consider a new proposal in the future. Dan Lockwood, a spokesman for the gas company, said it is studying its options.
"We're disappointed, particularly for our customers in Cape May County," he said.
The gas company said that in addition to providing a cleaner fuel source to the power plant, the new pipeline would provide a second transmission vehicle for natural gas to thousands of customers in Atlantic and Cape May counties. It was not immediately clear whether the power plant would seek an alternate means of getting natural gas. A message left with its parent company, Rockland Capital, was not immediately returned.
The pipeline would have run through the Pinelands, which are protected by state and federal law. The commission is tasked with protecting the ecologically fragile region while supervising responsible economic development within it.
South Jersey Gas proposed paying $8 million to a Pinelands fund to help clear the project's final hurdle. Most of the money would have gone to acquire and preserve 2,000 to 3,000 acres of land near the pipeline route. The deal would, in effect, have exempted the pipeline from a ban on new transmission lines in the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands reserve.
Environmentalists fear damage, but labor unions and business leaders want it approved for the jobs and added energy reliability it would provide.
"Voting yes for this project would sound the death knell for Pinelands protection," said Commissioner Leslie Ficcagia.
Commissioner Paul Galletta, who owns a blueberry farm, said a summer storm two and a half years ago devastated his business and convinced him the region needs additional sources of reliable electric power. He voted for the proposal.
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