By Vanessa Camargo
The New Jersey Highlands Council approved a plan in January to install a natural gas pipeline that would stretch from West Milford into Ringwood and end in Mahwah, making that 7.6 miles long. The pipeline was said to go under the Monksville Reservoir in West Milford. Its location would be in the Highlands Preservation Area, where development is limited to preserve the water supply. The Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council raised many concerns, while agreeing in the end that the project should go onward.
Roxbury Mayor Jim Rilee, Highlands Council’s new chairman, said he believes the council staff came up with a great plan for a pipeline that will help decrease its effect on the environment.
There was a lot of opposing talk about the pipeline from certain environmental groups. Campaign coordinator for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, Erika Van Auken, said constructing the pipeline would augment the flooding situation near Lake Lookover in West Milford. Gretchen Krueger, a Tennessee Gas spokeswoman, replied by saying the floods were primarily caused by an extreme amount of rain during construction.
Director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, Jeff Tittel, said the pipeline would create a number of problems. He thought that construction of the pipeline would result in acres of forests being cut down. He believed that this would ultimately cause harm to the water supply and would ruin the Highlands’ natural environment.
During a three and a half hour hearing on February 16 in Chester, the project stirred up more issues. The Christie administration’s new Energy Master Plan urged New Jersey to expand on its natural gas pipeline so that they could benefit from cheaper natural gas that would come from the Marcellus Shale deposits in Pennsylvania and New York. A lot of the current controversy was brought about after hearing these kinds of motives for installing this new pipeline.
Tennessee Gas Pipeline project opponents informed the Council that building a new gas pipeline along an existing right-of-way would endanger water supplies, mainly because the route runs up and down sharp slopes in the Highlands, which would increase erosion that will wash into the watershed.
Jim Rilee assured the audience that the Highlands Council members are taking precautions to guarantee the necessary upgrades to utility infrastructure will be handled in a responsible way with important safeguards for the environment and residents.
Various speakers disputed that the project should not have been an exception of strict rules governing what projects move forward in the Highlands preservation area because the proposal suggested an expansion of a pipeline, not an upgrade. Jeff Tittel responded by saying that this was a new pipeline, not an upgrade. He said that no matter the requirements, there will always be erosion.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the final say on where the project will go from here. They have still not made a decision on the pipeline expansion. The council's recommendation to move the project forward is now in the hands of the state Department of Environmental Protection. They can either approve or reject the Highlands Council verdict that the project is consistent with the Highlands Act.