By Bliss Sando
In the summer of 2008, New Jersey’s Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council (Highlands Council) approved the Highlands Regional Master Plan. The purpose of this piece of legislature was to protect open space and watershed land in the elevated area called the Highlands in northern New Jersey from development. The 860,000 acres that make up the New Jersey Highlands region are not only home to vital natural resources like drinking water, but also to some of the last remaining farmland in New Jersey, endangered species of animals and plants, historic structures, and miles of open space.
Unfortunately, since the passing of the Highlands Act, the formation of the Highlands Council and their approval of the Highlands Regional Master Plan, the momentum gained by these accomplishments has been countered by new elected officials, like Governor Chris Christie, who seem to have different plans for the land supposedly protected by these pieces of legislation.
Mahwah, New Jersey is home to the Ramapo Reservation, a stretch of land nestled on and along the Ramapo Mountains. Recently, the New Jersey Highlands Council passed Exemption 11 for the Tennessee Gas Company, allowing them to build a new natural gas pipeline that runs through the Highlands and through the Ramapo Reservation. This project, called the ‘Northeast Upgrade,’ will affect approximately six acres of land within the Ramapo Reservation—land that is supposed to be protected under the Highlands Act. Aside from being in the Highlands watershed region, this land is protected by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Green Acres Program.
So why isn’t it being protected? Is the Highlands Council doing the job that it was created for, which is to enforce the protective/preservation measures of the Highlands Act?
Many citizens expressed their opposition to Exemption 11, which resulted in the Highlands Council postponing their decision yet ultimately allowing it anyway. Citizens and environmental groups, like the New Jersey Sierra Club, are now expressing their opposition to the Highlands Council's action. The Sierra Club has proposed a lawsuit against the Highlands Council for ‘misinterpreting’ Exemption 11, arguing that the Northeast Upgrade is not an upgrade or maintenance, which the exemption allows, but an entirely new pipeline. It is true that the project will include several miles of new pipeline, but members of the Highlands Council call it an upgrade because of the fact that it connects to an existing pipeline.
The passage of Exemption 11 by the Highlands Council, however, does not mean that Tennessee Gas will be allowed to build their pipeline. The gas company must still acquire permits from the New Jersey DEP, and that the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) will make the ultimate decision, reported Scott Fallon of NewJersey.com .
New Jersey Governor Christie and his administration have expressed support for the new pipeline since last year. Citizens have spoken out loudly against the project and generated petitions, and environmental groups like the New Jersey Sierra Club have threatened legal action, but have not filed any lawsuits as of yet. However, until the final permits have been granted, there is still time to protect the source of New Jersey’s most precious natural resources in the Highlands.