PEMBERTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — The staff of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission on Monday recommended that the agency approve a hotly debated plan to build a pipeline through the protected Pinelands region.
The pipeline would bring natural gas to a Cape May County power plant that's switching from coal power.
A report signed by the commission's executive director, Nancy Wittenberg, recommended that the full commission approve the plan. The commission is scheduled to vote on Friday.
Wittenberg wrote that many opponents of the plan said the commission's main mission is to protect the Pinelands, but she said it is also tasked with encouraging "orderly" economic development within the region.
"Simply put, the commission's charge is not only to 'preserve, protect, and enhance,' but to also make the Pinelands area a living, working environment that serves both its natural ecosystems and its human ecosystems as well," she wrote.
The 22-mile natural gas pipeline would 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 would pay $8 million to a Pinelands fund to help clear the project's final hurdle. The deal would, in effect, exempt the pipeline from a ban on new transmission lines in the 1.1-million-acre Pinelands reserve.
The pipeline would go from Maurice River Township in Cumberland County to the BL England plant in Upper Township and would run mostly under or alongside existing roads.
Environmentalists oppose the pipeline, fearing damage. But labor unions and business leaders want it approved for the jobs and added energy reliability it would provide.
In the report, the commission's staff said the proposal meets most of the commission's requirements. It also says the planned acquisition of 2,000 to 3,000 acres of publicly owned land along the pipeline route compensates for the parts of the plan that don't fully comply with commission requirements.
The commission has heard months of public comment on the proposal.
Monday's commission meeting showed how high tensions are running over the issue.
The commission's chairman, Mark Lohbauer, told the audience that the public record on the proposal was closed and that the commission would accept no further comment on it. When a member of the public persisted in talking about the pipeline, Wittenberg and the commissioners got up and walked out of the room, with a staff member grabbing the microphone off the speaker's podium on the way out.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC