Trenton — The New Jersey Pinelands Commission unveiled its plan for approving a high-pressure gas pipeline cutting through the heart of its namesake preserve the day before Thanksgiving, but the state will not release the factual basis for key assumptions prior to the sole public hearing on the plan this upcoming Monday. Formal document requests by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) have either been denied or deferred until after the only chance for public input on this controversial project.
The Pineland Commission first posted its proposed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for approving a pipeline bringing shale gas to repower the B.L. England Electric Generation Plant last Wednesday. The MOA explicitly relies upon a number of economic, environmental and system reliability assumptions, such as air quality models, consumer demand patterns and absence of any impact on wetlands. Neither the Pinelands Commission nor its parent agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), posted any of the supporting documents, even those cited by title in the MOA.
On December 1, 2013, New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request with both agencies asking for, among other items –
- Copies of all environmental and reliability models cited by name in the MOA;
- The factual basis supporting an array of stated assumptions in the MOA concerning economic need for the project, lack of alternatives and environmental impacts; and
- The justification for conclusions about how essential the pipeline is to meeting expected demand.
The seven working day response time under the OPRA law prior to the agency beginning file reviews falls on the day of the public hearing.
“How can the public constructively comment on a project resting on assumptions grounded in documents hidden from public view?” Wolfe asked, noting that the 1.1 million acre Pinelands covering nearly a quarter of New Jersey's land area is the largest open space left on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. “Any public hearing should be postponed until after the public has sufficient time to study the facts underlying what now is a pig in a poke.”
Meanwhile yesterday at a subcommittee meeting, four Pinelands Commissioners publicly questioned the legal, technical and ethical basis for the MOA. Instead of an MOA, these Commissioners urged that the project be subjected to the much more stringent standard for a “waiver of strict compliance” including the demonstration of “a compelling public need” – a standard that the project could not likely meet.
Separately, Wolfe also asked for information about meetings between Pinelands Commission staff and representatives of South Jersey Gas Co., the pipeline proponent. The Commission denied this request on December 2, declaring that release even of logs indicating with whom Commission staff met would violate their “personal privacy” interests. Thus, no information about how the MOA was negotiated will be disclosed absent litigation.
“This precedent-setting deal undermining the very purpose of the Pinelands Act was pre-negotiated entirely behind closed doors. In other words, the fix was clearly in,” added Wolfe, questioning, among other things, how the $8 million payment from South Jersey Gas Co. to the Pinelands Commission for “equivalent level of protection” was hatched. “This move to shove this pipeline package through without meaningful public participation represents the antithesis of good government.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability