The PennEast Pipeline Company has resubmitted a permit application for its proposed natural gas pipeline to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. PennEast had previously applied to the NJDEP in February 2018, and been rejected.

The proposed route for the pipeline passes through Hopewell Valley and would affect landowners public and private in Hopewell Township.

BACKGROUND: PennEast surveys underway in Hopewell Valley

A map of the proposed PennEast Pipeline route.

With its application, PennEast is seeking permission to disturb and work in the wetlands. PennEast has not completed all of its geological and biological surveys, and there are several appeals pending in the courts.

In a blog post on Aug. 9, the nonprofit agency HALT, or Homeowners Against Land Taking, wrote: “If NJDEP accepts this submission as being complete, which it hasn’t yet, then it will begin its scrutiny against NJ environmental policies and laws. HALT and its allies are confident that this proposed pipeline ultimately will not meet the strict standards and specifications required under New Jersey law.

“Likewise, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation believes that NJDEP will have all the evidence it needs to determine that this damaging project cannot meet the state’s stringent environmental regulations.”

HALT says it does not believe NJDEP has yet formally acknowledged receipt of the application, and that when the time comes NJDEP will provided a detailed process and timetable for public review, “including hearings.”

Community News spoke to Timothy Duggan, a partner with Stark and Stark experienced in eminent domain issues, about the new permit application. Duggan represents a number of landowners affected by the PennEast proposal.

Community News: What is the significance of this latest permit application?

Timothy Duggan: PennEast is looking to get the approvals from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to be able to start construction of the pipeline. So although they’ve got certain eminent domain rights, they don’t have the ability to put a shovel in the ground until they get various approvals, one being from NJDEP, another being from the Dealware River Basin Commission. So they refiled their application to get the permits necessary to start construction.

CN: Why is this happening now?

TD: From PennEast’s point of view, they’ve been held up longer in this case than any other case they’ve experienced, so this is very late to be filing the application with the DEP. That’s because they were not able to get on properties to complete all the necessary surveys.

It’s my understanding that PennEast has completed, or at least believes it’s completed, the necessary surveys that are required for these specific permits. They’re still doing freshwater mussel and insect surveys, but they may not be necessary for the New Jersey DEP applications. Most of these have to do with wetlands and the Clean Water Act reviews.

CN: How should homeowners respond if approached by representatives of PennEast Pipeline? What are the homeowners’ rights?

TD: As of now, unless [someone has] been sued and there’s court order, PennEast has no right to be on anyone’s property. We were anticipating this happening, but we think they have an uphill battle at NJDEP because of the route they took. There’s a lot of envinronemtnally sensitive areas and we think it’s going to be hard to get approvals.

It’s important for the property owners to know this is not a sign that PennEast is going to get this pipeline built. It’s just a step in the process. Even though they’re filing the application with the DEP, other challenges in federal court are proceeding (against PennEast).

CN: How can PennEast Pipeline Company use the power of eminent domain to take property that the owner declines to sell?

TD: Unfortunately, under the Natural Gas Act and existing case law, the courts have allowed the pipeline companies to use the power of eminent domain. Congress gave this power to private pipeline companies under the Natural Gas Act.

They can use power of eminent domain to buy property. Generally what they do is take an easement right, which is a right to put a pipe on your property under the ground. Sometimes they will take an easement to put above ground things on your property, like a pig launcher, and those things are devastating.

CN: What is the best way to defend property rights against eminent domain proceedings?

TD: Right now the best way to do it is stay in contact with your township. Donate to certain organizations (like HALT) to help fight the fight.

It’s very important to keep making noise, so our politicians understand it’s a very important issue to voters and the voters don’t intend to go away. A lot of people in different parts of the country think it’s wonderful how the opposition has staying power in this case. Too often, people put a sign on the front lawn and that’s it. In this case, people have been very active, townships have been very active, and they have put up a great fight.

[The reapplication] is a step we anticipated, but the fight is far from over, and PennEast is going to have their hands full convincing DEP this will have no adverse impact on our water.

The version of this story that was published in the September issue of the Hopewell Express contained some transcription errors in the last paragraph. These errors have been corrected in this version.