Fate of BL England plant up in the air after Pinelands pipeline denied

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Fate of BL England plant up in the air after Pinelands pipeline denied Fate of BL England plant up in the air after Pinelands pipeline denied

UPPER TOWNSHIP – A proposal to build a natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands to the BL England power plant in Beesleys Point was effectively denied Friday after the New Jersey Pinelands Commission voted 7-7 on a Memorandum of Agreement to allow the project to move forward.

Opponents of the pipeline cheered when the votes were counted. They said they were surprised by the outcome and grateful. Some asked for the resignation of Pinelands Commission executive director Nancy Wittenberg.

The tie vote means the proposal cannot move forward, according to Pinelands Commission members.

With the pipeline proposal defeated, the future of the BL England power plant is now up in the air. The plant was required by an Administrative Consent Order with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to shut down one coal burner. It planned to repower a second coal burner and an oil burning unit with natural gas as part of a $400 million conversion plan.

South Jersey Gas had proposed the $90 million pipeline as part of the conversion to natural gas at BL England. The company said it would also increase electrical and natural gas reliability in South Jersey.

But 15 miles of the pipeline would have passed through protected Pinelands areas, meaning it needed approval from the Pinelands Commission.

Mayor Richard Palombo said this week that it isn’t clear what will happen to the BL England plant. The plant’s owner, Rockland Capital, made some improvements to the plant to comply with the DEP order but stopped those improvements when it decided to convert to gas.

“They were going to come into compliance with the changes taking place,” Palombo said. “I’m not sure what happens now. A lot rests on what South Jersey Gas wants to do.”

A spokesperson for South Jersey Gas said the company is reviewing its options. It could apply to the Pinelands Commission for a waiver of strict compliance, which requires a compelling public need, or propose an alternate route around the Pinelands.

Daniel Sperrazza, a South Jersey Gas policy analyst for government and regulatory affairs, spoke to the Cape May County conference of mayors in December and said the 24-inch pipeline would provide a backup system to provide natural gas to customers in the county should the single pipeline now in use experience a break.

Sperrazza said this area is the only section of the South Jersey Gas system with a “single upset vulnerability condition anywhere near this magnitude.” If the current single feed pipe was damaged, the natural gas supply to Cape May County could be interrupted to 60,000 customers for months, he said.

Upper Township receives $6.4 million in Energy Receipts Taxes for hosting the BL England plant. That is about half of Upper Township’s budget every year. Palombo said it wasn’t clear if that money would dry up if the power plant closes.

“There have been some towns where older plants shut down and they still received Energy Receipts Taxes or a part of them for a number of years,” he said.

Palombo said the money is huge for the township, “but so is the reliability of gas and electricity for residents,” which is why local officials backed the project, he said.

The Pinelands Commission was considering a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the state BPU (Board of Public Utilities) to allow the pipeline construction. As part of the MOA, South Jersey Gas would have paid the Pinelands Commission $8 million. The money would have been used for education and land acquisition, according to a draft of the agreement.

Opponents called the agreement a payoff, and accused Pinelands Commission members of prostituting their mandate.

One commissioner, Edward Lloyd, a professor of environmental law at Columbia Law School, was asked to recuse himself from the proceedings by a state deputy attorney general. Lloyd had raised concerns about the MOA at a Dec. 4 meeting, urging the commission to instead require a waiver of strict compliance from South Jersey Gas. Lloyd said he was asked to recuse himself two days later by a deputy attorney general because of a letter from the Eastern Environmental Law Center requesting an additional public hearing on the MOA. Lloyd is president of the group but said he did not know about the letter until the commission received it.

In a letter to commission members last Friday, he said the state ethics commission denies ever acting on his situation.

“I should note that at no time since this matter was first raised has the State Ethics Commission contacted me in writing, by email, by telephone, or in any other manner,” he wrote. “I should also reiterate that I wrote to the State Ethics Commission on Dec. 12 (after I had been informed of their “order”) and asked for a review of this matter under the pertinent state regulations. I have not received any response to my request to date.”

The New Jersey Sierra Club, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, and other environmental groups came out against the pipeline, saying it would damage the Pinelands and promote “fracking” for natural gas. “Fracking” uses water and chemicals pumped underground to release natural gas, and opponents of the process say it pollutes the environment.

But Pinelands Commission chairman Mark Lohbauer said the use of fracking, jobs, the fate of the BL England plant or a decrease in emissions from the plant doesn’t come under the commission’s purview. He said he opposed an MOA because the Pinelands Commission can only enter into such an agreement with a public agency, and South Jersey Gas, not the BPU, was the real applicant.

“South Jersey Gas is the real applicant, and they will be installing this pipeline for a private purpose, related to their private (not governmental) decision to re-fuel the BL England plant with natural gas that they supply,” he said. “This will be a private enterprise endeavor for South Jersey Gas, not a public project. South Jersey Gas will fund its construction; not the state of New Jersey. South Jersey Gas will be liable for any problems that arise; not the state of New Jersey. By all measures, this is a private industry application, and not a government application.”

Commissioners Lohbauer, Candace Ashmun, Joseph DiBello, Leslie Ficcaglia, Robert Jackson, Richard Prickett and Darcy Green voted against the MOA. Alan Avery, Jr., Upper Township’s William Brown, Sean Earlen, Paul Galletta, Edward McGlinchey, Gary Quinn and Francis Witt voted for the MOA.

The Pinelands National Reserve is the first National Reserve in the nation. It encompasses approximately 1.1 million acres covering portions of seven counties and all or parts of 56 municipalities.

This region occupies 22 percent of New Jersey's land area. It is the largest body of open space on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard between Richmond and Boston and is underlain by aquifers containing 17 trillion gallons of water, according to the Pinelands Commission.

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