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Op-Ed: Pinelands Fail to Investigate NJNG Spills

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During the Pinelands Commission December public meeting, the Commissioners discussed their visit to the spill sites at Joint Base in Lakehurst. The commissioners who visited said they could not see any damage on the surface of the site and vegetation looked like it was not impacted. Meanwhile Commissioner Llyod raised the issue that the spill occurred 20 feet below the surface and occurred close to 20 months ago. Commissioner Earlen commented that when he visited the site 24 hours after the first spill, it occurred in the roadways, cut through a retaining wall, and into wetlands. He stated that after the “cleanup” there was little left. Meanwhile, Chairman Prickett raised the fact that there were 444 gallons spilled.  

“The Pinelands Commission didn’t do their job when they visited NJNG’s spill sites and Joint Base. They did not investigate or did sampling to check for potential damages. Instead their blinders were on as they checked off that the site is completely fine. The spill happened 20 feet underground and almost 2 years ago, of course they couldn’t see any damage on the surface. The Pinelands Commission failed to do their due diligence and gave NJNG a free pass for damaging wetlands in Pinelands. There is still a major elephant in the room as to why these spills happened and why Nancy Whittenberg did not disclose them to the Pinelands Commission or DEP,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

The Commissioners also discussed the confusion from the November meeting over the SJ Gas exemption. They agreed to look at the factual analysis and history of the 4.1 exemption regulation for the Pinelands Commission that will be put on the agenda for their next meeting. Commissioner Lohbauer is interested in writing on the rights that the Commission has as a body to override the exemption if the Commission believes it would be in the best interest of the Pinelands and obligation under the CMP. Commissioner Llyod indicated the commission should first look into the factual background of the rulemaking, how it is defined and focus on dis-exemption, then their authorization to look at the staff decision and review them.

“It’s critical that the Commission will look into the SJ Gas exemption and possibly move forward with rule changes in the CMP to avoid dangerous pipeline and HDD drilling projects in the Pinelands. However, we believe they should put a stay on SJ Gas HDD drilling project until the Commission undergoes a full analysis on the impact of the pipeline. More importantly, it's important that the staff and the Commission are on the same page when it comes to process, approvals, and regulations. Too many times we see projects approved or spills uncovered by staff without informing the Commissioners,” said Tittel.

At the October Pinelands Commission meeting, the Commission discussed an HDD drilling project involving South Jersey Gas. South Jersey Gas (App. No. 2020-0083.001): On September 21, 2020, the Commission staff issued a letter indicating that the replacement of 5,900 linear feet of natural gas main in the Hamilton Mall area of Hamilton Township did not require an application to the Commission. The New Jersey Sierra Club and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance recently submitted comments on NJ’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rule proposal regarding Well Construction and Maintenance; Sealing of Abandoned Wells N.J.A.C. 7:9D.  They believe the DEP has the power and need to include horizontal directional drilling (HDD) among the projects that require Well Drilling permits. The Department is proposing amendments to address issues that have become apparent since the January 2, 2018 adoption.

“The Pinelands Commission needs to put a hold on the HDD Drilling project for SJ Gas. The Commission doesn't know who is overseeing the replacement line project or if they even got approvals. The fact that HDD will occur should be a major red flag, especially with irreparable harm that SRL has caused from HDD. SJ Gas will be playing Russian Roulette if they drill right under a major expressway.  We have already seen sinkholes, blowouts, and more from this technique that should be downright banned,” said Tittel. “We believe the DEP needs to stop all HDD drilling and scrap the rule for drilling. DEP has had the ability to regulate HDD through well drilling. HDD falls under the law, however the DEP has been ignoring the law and needs to correct their mistake. Based on the law, HDD is no different than well drilling under the definition. That is why it needs to be covered.”

The NJDEP reinstated New Jersey Natural Gas’s permits for their SRL Pipeline. DEP has reviewed the strategy for New Jersey Natural Gas’s Southern Reliability Link Pipeline involving updated designs and strategies for the remaining HDD crossings on the pipeline. These include drilling on Chesterfield-Arneytown Road, Old York Road Traffic Circle, and a re-drill on Province Line Road. The department believes NJNG adequately addressed the cause of the IRs so they will be reinstating the permit. The NJ Sierra Club & the Pinelands Preservation Alliance will have their court date in January against SRL.

 “If the DEP and the Pinelands Commission can’t protect the Pinelands from NJNG’s SRL pipeline, then we will. The NJ Sierra Club and the PPA finally have our court date with NJNG’s SRL pipeline. We will fight and continue to fight to protect the public and environment from this dangerous pipeline. It has already caused over a dozen incidents that has caused irreparable damage to groundwater and wetlands,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “As we enter into a new year, hopefully the Murphy Administration, DEP, and Pinelands Commission can start on a good note and stop HDD drilling, stop SJ Gas pipeline extension, and stop the SRL pipeline.”