"Save Twilight Lake from NJ Transit." Those signs can be seen all over Bay Head as residents fight to save their precious lake in the wetlands from a substation project currently under construction.

Ellen Nolan, representative of Concerned Citizens of Bay Head, said after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, it was determined that NJ Transit lacked resiliency to weather future storms. So they came up with a resiliency plan and were granted $24 million from the Federal Transit Authority to construct a substation in Bay Head to replace what was lost in the storm.

According to a statement from NJ Transit, this project is critical to the agency.

"The new substation will provide critical power for buildings, yard operations, and the wayside power system that allows diesel locomotive engines to be shut down overnight, thus reducing noise and emissions," NJ Transit said. "NJ Transit's goal is to incorporate greater resilience in the infrastructure that supports our mobility mission and the Bay Head Yard Substation Replacement Project furthers our efforts to protect and strengthen our critical infrastructure during future severe weather conditions and other unforeseen emergencies."

Nolan said if the new substation was being built at the original location, residents would most likely accept the project, but that is not what is happening.

Instead, NJ Transit is constructing the largest building on the Barrier Island on the edge of Twilight Lake in the wetlands. Nolan said wetlands are important because they are the habitat to several endangered and threatened bird species, such as the osprey, which are nesting on the NJ Transit site. They are a protected bird under The Endangered and Non-Game Species Act of 1973.

Additionally, Nolan said wetlands mitigate flooding. After a storm, roads are impassable around Twilight Lake, so any disturbance to the wetlands is a concern to citizens, she added.

NJ Transit said the wetlands won't be lost under the project.

"The permanent impact to onsite wetlands is only 120 square feet. These current degraded wetlands onsite will be replaced with wetland plantings of a higher ecological value so that upon the project's completion, there will have been no net loss of wetland area or function," according to a NJ Transit statement.

Part of the project calls for dewatering of industrial brown water from a historically contaminated site into Twilight Lake, said Nolan. NJ Transit has been seeking a permit from the Department of Environmental Protection to discharge 50,000 gallons of water per day for one year into the lake. Nolan said she and others were very vocal about this at two virtual meetings held by the DEP, which gave residents the opportunity to voice their concerns.

Twilight Lake is not just a catch-basin in an industrial area, said Nolan. It's a thriving lake where residents and summertime visitors swim, fish, kayak and watch the sunset. "It's the centerpiece of the Bay Head community," she said.

While NJ Transit said it is unsure of what "industrial brown water" refers to, groundwater that is pumped from construction excavations is being managed without discharge. If discharge should be needed, NJ Transit said it would be required to apply for an appropriate permit through the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

"The Bay Head Yard Substation project qualified for categorical exclusion, which is a level of environmental review, and does not mean there was no review or analysis. NJ Transit did submit a report on potential environmental impacts for the Bay Head project. The submittal was consistent with the requirements from the FTA for this type of project."

NJ Transit has also released a statement stating they are following proper protocol on the project.

"Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Transit Administration decides what level of environmental review is appropriate for projects based on their potential impact," NJ Transit said.

NJ Transit's project website includes a list of questions and answers about the work.

Nolan said NJ Transit has a proposal in its five-year capital plan to refit rail cars with batteries, making them a quieter, cleaner mode of transportation.

This would also enable NJ Transit to connect the lines at Long Branch where commuters currently have to change trains to the electrified lines. This would make it a continuous ride to New York Penn Station. The battery-powered trains would recharge when they switch over to the electrified lines, she said.

"So what we're advocating right now is that the $24 million designated for the substation be re-allocated to the $26 million estimated for the battery-pilot project. New Jersey's strategic plan is to convert to 100% clean energy. There's no time like the present to get started," said Nolan.

According to NJ Transit, the funding that they received was specifically mandated to build a resilient power substation at Bay Head Yard to replace the current substation that is beyond its serviceable life due to the damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy. Federal regulations on the funding do not permit NJ Transit to re-allocate funding granted for specific projects.

Construction of the substation has already started. But Nolan said concerned citizens are working with elected officials to advise them of what's going on in Bay Head and try to get the project re-evaluated.

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