PennEast and Open Space

PennEast has sent out a flier to all residents near the route of the proposed pipeline, claiming that the proposed pipeline will create more open space and thus is environmentally friendly.

What they do not mention is that the quality of open space matters. In a mostly built out state, it is not possible to replace the preserved lands they are degrading with properties of similar ecological value. Large areas of New Jersey are ecologically highly degraded and support little biodiversity. Intact functioning ecosystems with a healthy diversity of species are rare, stressed, and irreplaceable. Many of the remaining areas of significant biodiversity with functioning ecosystems have been designated as Important Bird Areas (IBA’s). IBA’s were chosen because they contain significant numbers of birds, rare birds, or rare ecosystems.   Healthy bird populations indicate healthy, diverse populations of other taxa, notably the plants and insects on which the birds depend. These IBA’s are not interchangeable with random open space. Quality matters.

Over forty percent of the proposed PennEast pipeline is routed through IBA’s in New Jersey. PennEast claims that the buried pipeline will have little lasting effect with most of the land returning to its original condition. Yet the pipeline route goes through forests, including the two remaining largest contiguous forests in central New Jersey, the Sourland Mountain Region IBA and the Baldpate Mountain IBA. The routes through both IBA’s parallel existing right-of-ways but go through adjacent mature forest, requiring the harvesting of mature trees. This is particularly damaging at Baldpate Mountain because of the long narrow shape of the mountain and the small size, already at the lower size limit for interior forest habitat. Any diminution of the mature forest at Baldpate would have serious consequences for the bird species that require interior forest habitat to breed. It would take over a hundred years to return these forests to their original condition. There is no way to replace the lost habitat within a time frame that is meaningful to a breeding bird population that has no place else to go.

The proposed PennEast pipeline also traverses grassland IBA’s which will be negatively impacted by the construction of the pipeline. Construction can cause of loss or degradation of native soils, causing a long term decrease in soil productivity. Disturbed lands are a conduit for invasive species, which once established are difficult to eradicate making the land’s return to prime farmland or grassland habitat problematic and long term at best. Studies have shown that the area of vegetation affected by pipeline construction is much more extensive than the area of soil disturbance. The vegetation will be disturbed for a much greater distance than the 30’ corridor PennEast implies. PennEast’s assertion that vegetation will be restored to its original condition significantly omits the extent of the damage and the time frame required for restoration.

The PennEast pipeline will also have long term negative effects on C-1 streams and their adjacent wetlands. Potential impacts on stream crossings include effects from sedimentation and changes in stream morphology and flow, which can permanently alter the stream’s flora and fauna. Tree removal and the resulting changes in tree canopy along the streams can change the temperature of the streams, causing a change in the organisms that the streams support. This is particularly worrisome for high quality trout streams.   Any adjacent wetlands would be susceptible to changes in the plant composition and at risk for loss of wildlife. Fill replacing wetlands is of special concern. The PennEast flier is silent on the long term damage to C-1 streams and wetlands.

The PennEast flier states that “Federal regulators now agree environmental impacts can be reduced to less than significant levels”, which was the conclusion of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commissions’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). PennEast neglects to mention that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the NJ Department of Environmental Protection disagreed, calling the DEIS too data deficient to draw conclusions about the environmental impact of the PennEast pipeline. The DEIS glosses over the environmental impact of the pipeline.

We live at a time of unsustainably decreasing biodiversity. The State of North America’s Birds 2016 states that “More than one-third (37%) of North American bird species are of high conservation concern and at risk of extinction without significant conservation action.” Other taxa are in similar steep declines. The first essential step in reversing this loss of biodiversity is to protect the ecological integrity of the remaining intact ecosystems. The proposed PennEast pipeline cannot be built and maintained in a way that is consistent with protecting the ecological integrity of the lands and waters which it will transverse. No slick publication with pretty pictures will change this. Caveat emptor.

Cerulean Warbler, one of North America's most threatened migratory songbirds photo © WM Commons
Cerulean Warbler reported at Baldpate during the breeding season Spring 2016. Presence is a testament to Baldpate’s high quality habitat.
“the Cerulean Warbler has become even harder to find. Its population has declined by about 70 percent in the past 40 years, making it one of North America’s most threatened migratory songbirds… The Cerulean Warbler breeds in mature deciduous forests of the eastern and central United States and Canada. In winter, its home is the Andes, from Venezuela south to Bolivia… All along its migratory path, the bird faces problems: habitat destruction on both breeding and wintering grounds, and nest parasites like Brown-headed Cowbirds in the fragmented forests that remain… Reversing this species’ population freefall is one of our top priorities.”—American Bird Conservancy
IBAs crossed by PennEast in NJ
Blue denotes Important Bird Areas in New Jersey crossed by PennEast.

This opinion piece (left) appeared in the Times of Trenton and as a Times of Trenton Guest Columnist:
NEW JERSEY OPINION | PennEast, when it comes to open space, quality matters | Opinion
and in the Daily Record | USA Today Network as a Letter to the Editor:
LETTER: PennEast pipeline will damage ecosystems