The Christie administration went to extraordinary lengths in an effort to secure approval for a controversial gas pipeline, opponents allege. Approval of the pipeline would benefit a top Christie political operative who is also enmeshed in the George Washington Bridge scandal.
The New Jersey Pinelands Commission voted Friday to reject a pipeline that would have crossed 10 miles of protected national reserve to supply a coastal power plant with natural gas. And the fact that David Samson, a Christie appointee who is also connected to the George Washington Bridge scandal, is the lawyer for the plant that would have received power may have caused the pipeline to clear several obstacles towards approval too easily, and even led the governor’s office to play a role in intimidating a Pinelands Commissioner into recusing himself from voting against it.
The Pinelands Commission is technically not supposed to approve infrastructure in environmentally sensitive parts of the Pinelands unless it is for Pinelands residents and there is no feasible alternative. Theresa Lettman, Director for Monitoring Programs at the Pinelands Presservation Alliance, told ThinkProgress that since neither seemed to be true in this case, South Jersey Gas turned to a memorandum of agreement. Essentially, the gas company would give the Commission $8 million to spend on the area around the pipeline in exchange for special dispensation. The Pinelands Commission voted 7-7 on that proposal Friday, meaning the pipeline was rejected.
One commissioner opposing the pipeline, Edward Lloyd, recused himself from the vote. He told ThinkProgress he first got a call from the state Attorney General’s office on Friday, December 6, informing him that an organization he is the co-director of, the Eastern Environmental Law Center, had written a letter to the Pinelands Commission asking for another public hearing on the pipeline, and that because of the letter, Lloyd would have to recuse himself from the vote. Lloyd said that he didn’t agree that it constituted a conflict of interest, and was told to check with the Pinelands Commission’s ethics liaison, Stacey Roth.
He called Monday, December 9, and Roth informed him he’d have to take it up either with the attorney general’s office or the State Ethics Commission, an independent state entity. “On Thursday the 12th,” Lloyd said, ” I got a call from Stacey. ‘Don’t shoot the messenger,’ she said, ‘but on the order of the governor’s office I went to the state ethics commission, and they ordered you to recuse yourself.'” But the ethics commission had made no such order. When the New York Times spoke to its executive director, he said the Ethics Commission had not “made such a determination.” In multiple calls to Stacey Roth’s office for clarification, she was said to be “unavailable” with no future availability given.
Nancy Wittenberg, Executive Director of the Pinelands Commission and a Christie appointee, disputes Lloyd’s version of events. “We never spoke to the governor’s office on this,” she told ThinkProgress. “That was a quote from Ed, and maybe he didn’t remember it right, but it’s not true.”
Lloyd stood by what he said. “There’s no chance that I misheard. You don’t forget that kind of thing. It was surprising but it was there,” he said.
Wittenberg also sought to clarify that though the State Ethics Commission did tell Roth they advised that Lloyd recuse himself, that isn’t the same thing as an order to do so, which was still in progress. “The process isn’t set up to deal with things in real time,” she said, which is why the final order on recusal is coming after the actual vote.
“I wrote to the State Ethics Commission on December 12 asking them to review the decision, and give me an idea what I should do, but I haven’t gotten anything back,” Lloyd said.
Roth also spoke out in favor of the pipeline to the Commission in June, presenting industry claims as facts in what is supposed to be a neutral role. “There are no issues related to the pipeline’s impact on wetlands, threatened and endangered species or any other environmental standard…” she said, and “the repowered plant will provide a redundancy in gas supply which, based on the experience of local residents during Superstorm Sandy, would benefit the area.”
In fact, a number of factors appear to indicate the BL England plant wouldn’t be suited for redundancy. David Tittel, Chapter Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club pointed out that the plant is on the shore, four feet above sea level, in an area “subject to sea level rises, storm surges, and it’s flooded in the past.” “The plant would have been underwater before the people they wanted to serve,” said Lettman at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
It’s clear that someone in the Christie administration ordered his recusal, and now they’re trying to cover it up,” said David Pringle, New Jersey Environmental Federation Campaign Director. “Bridgegate and the pinelands pipeline are examples of the way this administration operates, sometimes under order of the governor, sometimes not.”
“It’s part of the typical hardball Christie campaign against anyone who doesn’t see things the same way,” Tittel told ThinkProgress.
Tittel said that Christie has a clear interest in getting the pipeline built. The administration wants the BL England plant supplied with natural gas and back in operation, he said, because “the attorney for the owners of that plant is David Samson,” Christie’s political appointee as Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Samson worked on Chris Christie’s gubernatorial campaign, served as Chairman of his Transition Committee, and was the direct supervisor of Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s deputy executive director, who resigned in December for his role in the unfolding scandal over politically-motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. Though Samson’s full involvement in the scandal is unknown, he sent official emails criticizing the Port Authority Executive Director’s decision to reopen closed lanes.
Samson was also present with Christie, Baroni, and David Wildstein on September 11, 2013, the third day of lane closures on the bridge. Wildstein stepped down from his key Port Authority post in December after it became known that he was a major part of the bridge scandal. He was known as Christie’s “eyes and ears” inside the Port Authority, according to Bergen County Record reporter Shawn Boburg as quoted in CNN.
The BL England power plant, located on the south New Jersey shore near Cape May, burned coal until the State Department of Environmental Protection required it to cut down on its pollution emissions or shut down. Then, “the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) did extraordinary things” to keep it open, according to Bill Wolfe, former DEP staffer-turned activist.
“They withdrew and revised” the enforcement order to shut down the plant, “and made it a repowering operation in 2012,” said Wolfe, opening up the possibility of supplying the plant with natural gas. “It’s been apparent that this thing has been wired from the governor’s office for months,” he said. The Bureau of Public Utilities (BPU) openly described the pipeline plan as “the governor’s pipeline policy, and the government’s environment policy,” according to to Wolfe. The BPU issued its approval for the pipeline with the written assumption that the Pinelands Commission would go along with a memorandum of understanding allowing the pipeline before the Commission had even heard of the proposal.
David Pringle said there was clearly no reason to keep BL England open. “The DEP wouldn’t offer shutdown as an option if it was really needed,” he told ThinkProgress.
Wolfe attempted to raise the issue that two members of the Pinelands Commission had financial connections to the oil and gas industry. Executive Director Wittenberg said both counsel and the ethics liaison had looked at that possibility and found no conflict. “You can’t hold stock in oil and gas companies and be impartial,” Wolfe said.
Even if the influence of the governor’s office wasn’t seen clearly, it seems to have been on people’s minds. Bill Wolfe described an atmosphere of fear among Pinelands Commissioners. “There were private rumors among the commissioners that anybody who defied the governor on this vote was going to be terminated and replaced,” he said. And Lettman confirmed that was a possible way forward for pipeline proponents. “The only other thing that could change it,” she said, “is if the governor changes appointments on the commission. He would be able to change up to four expired appointments in June.”
Otherwise, South Jersey Gas has a few possible ways forward. “They could reach BL England under the river,” Lettman said. Or they could use existing pipeline in the Pinelands that wasn’t built through ecologically sensitive areas. She said some commissioners had felt like the $8 million offered for environmental protection around the pipeline didn’t offer enough protection. “Maybe they’ll just offer $20 million, and try again,” she said. “Or maybe investors will be looking more closely, saying, what am I doing here?”