The Pinelands Commission voted Thursday to approve New Jersey Natural Gas’ application to build a natural gas pipeline that would run in part through the preserved Pinelands, mostly on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

The 8-4 vote drew jeers from environmental activists, some of whom blew whistles and rang cowbells to ridicule the justification that commissioners and the agency’s executive director were offering for approving what’s called the Southern Reliability Link.

Some said they’ll sue to block it, as they did around two years when it was first approved.

The appeals will focus on alleged conflicts of interest of two commissioners who voted for the pipeline, the process by which the project was approved and the limits that put on public input and the merits of the project itself, said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

“These rules that were applied today to approve the pipeline, they were written to prevent exactly this kind of thing,” Montgomery said. “And the fact that the commission staff could turn those rules on their head and make them into grounds to approve massive infrastructure across the conservation zones of the Pinelands creates a huge I think fatal defect in the approvals they’ve given today.”

“We are not going to tolerate the destruction of a U.N. biosphere reserve, a 17 trillion gallon aquifer and a place where species are found nowhere else in the world,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It is New Jersey’s backyard. It is New Jersey’s Yellowstone. It is New Jersey’s Yosemite. And we’re not going to stand for it. We’re going to go back to court. We beat you once. We’re going to beat you again.”

The project was initiated in 2014 and approved in 2015. It was successfully appealed in 2016 and returned to the commission earlier this year.

The 30-inch gas main starts in Chesterfield and extends southeast. The 30-mile project includes 12.1 miles in the Pinelands, in Jackson, Manchester and Plumsted townships, though most of the Pinelands area that would be included – 10.45 miles – are part of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

Public service infrastructure is allowed in the Pinelands’ military and federal installation area, if it’s associated with the function of the federal installation, said Nancy Wittenberg, executive director of the Pinelands Commission.

Base commanders said in a letter that the pipeline would provide a redundant source of natural gas, increasing their energy security. But critics of the plan note the base is served by Public Service Electric & Gas Co., PSE&G, not New Jersey Natural Gas – so the pipeline would merely go under its land.

“Any use is a permitted use as long as it’s associated with the function of the base,” said Wittenberg. "In this instance, the use associated with the base is the redundancy in energy supply provided by the new looped connection to the existing pipeline that now serves the base.”

“Commenters noted that there was no physical connection being made to the base,” she said. “At this point in time, that is true. There is no direct connection to the base. However, it is the redundancy provided by the new loop that serves the function of the base.”

That’s a good reason to support the pipeline, said Pinelands Commission vice chairman Paul Galletta.

“The base commanders thought that they needed this,” Galletta said. “And whether it’s true or not, I’m a big believer in national security. And I tend to agree with them unless they didn’t want it.”

Commission member Mark Lohbauer, who had been chairman until Gov. Chris Christie bounced him from that role last year after voting against a second pipeline, said the area is supposed to be protected from development and that the rules don’t permit such infrastructure there, even on the base.

“They have to preserve the ecological resources. The (management plan) does not give federal installations a blank check to do whatever they want,” said Lohbauer, who voted no.

“I have not been convinced that this use is really associated with the function of the military installation,” said commission member Richard Prickett, who voted against the pipeline.

Montgomery said Galletta’s support for the pipeline due to the base’s support for it, regardless of whether it would actually be beneficial, was “a terrible, terrible comment on the state of the Pinelands Commission.”

“The Pinelands rules clearly are stated to limit what the military can do on the base within the Pinelands,” Montgomery said. “The rules don’t say whatever the commander today wants, they get. They have to meet these criteria.”

The pipeline still requires approval from Joint Base MDL.

The pipeline is the second through the Pinelands approved this year.

In February, the Pinelands Commission approved a 22-mile South Jersey Gas pipeline, called the Cape Atlantic Reliability Project, running from Millville to Upper Township, where it would connect to a B.L. England power plant. That project runs under and along paved roads.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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