PEMBERTON, N.J. (AP) — As jobs-versus-environment clashes go, few issues have been as hard fought and generated as much passion in New Jersey as a proposal to run a natural gas pipeline through federally protected woods atop some of the nation's purest drinking water.
The plan was narrowly defeated in 2014. But since then, Republican Gov. Chris Christie has replaced several commissioners on the state agency that will reconsider the plan with supporters of the pipeline. On Tuesday, a public hearing on building the pipeline was held in Pemberton.
With a new Republican administration in power in Washington that is more receptive to fossil-fuel energy projects, the fate of the Pinelands pipeline is sure to be closely watched by national energy and environmental groups. As the hearing was underway, President Donald Trump signed executive actions to advance the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipeline projects.
"This is a symbol of the national battle between clean energy and renewable resources, and the push for pipelines," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "This is the front line of a battle that's coming where Donald Trump is going to want to push pipelines everywhere."
South Jersey Gas proposes to run the pipe from Maurice River Township in Cumberland County to the B.L. England power plant in Upper Township; it would run mostly under or alongside existing roads.
Jeff DuBois, CEO of South Jersey Industries, said the company already operates over 1,400 miles of gas mains and 133 miles of elevated pressure lines within the Pinelands without harm to the environment.
"For many years, our underground infrastructure has warmed homes, dried clothes and heated water in the very same Pinelands towns where new infrastructure will be laid," he said. "In reality, this project is no different."
New Jersey regulators will decide whether the pipeline gets built. After the proposal was defeated in 2014, the executive director of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission unilaterally decided that it met the agency's criteria and was therefore approved.
Environmentalists sued, and a court ordered the commission to take a new vote. That could come as soon as next month.
Supporters and foes packed the hearing Tuesday, and dozens of others were denied entry when the room reached its capacity of about 250. A leader of the Food and Water Watch environmental group, Lena Smith, was escorted out by state police after she began yelling at commissioners that people were being made to stand outside in a cold rain.
Pipeline foes unfurled a large paper banner that said "Stop The Pipeline" before the hearing but removed it soon afterward.
The proposed pipeline has been hotly fought by environmental groups, who fear it will harm the fragile Pinelands and set a bad precedent for future development there. They said it will cause a loss of some habitat and increase runoff and erosion in an area home to an aquifer estimated to hold 17 trillion gallons of some of the nation's purest water.
Four former state governors — two Republicans and two Democrats — also oppose the pipeline, citing their desire to protect a vulnerable natural resource.
South Jersey Gas maintains 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. There is only one pipeline right now that takes gas to nearly 29,000 homes and businesses, which could be left out in the cold without a second means of getting gas to their homes if the existing pipeline fails.
Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC