In January 2018, a Conditional Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity was issued to PennEast by the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC), giving PennEast the right of eminent domain. This certificate was issued without a thorough survey of the flora and fauna of all affected properties and waterways. With only 35% of the properties surveyed, it is impossible to accurately assess the environmental impact of the PennEast pipeline. Many of the unsurveyed properties are lands that were preserved because of their value for protecting New Jersey’s unsustainably diminishing flora and fauna. These properties include Important Bird Areas (IBA’s) that protect threatened habitats which harbor many New Jersey species of conservation concern and threatened and endangered species. Washington Crossing Audubon Society (WCAS) has documented many of these species in our filings to FERC. WCAS citizen scientists have made the most extensive surveys at Baldpate Mountain. WCAS has repeatedly made the argument that if the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is proven to be significantly deficient in the best studied area, the FEIS must be considered to be so incomplete as to be invalid. The NJDEP has not issued the final permits needed for this project to proceed. The certificate should not have been given on the basis of a flawed FEIS and before all the needed permits were issued.
PennEast is expected to request permission from FERC to start tree cutting along the proposed route before the final permits are issued. WCAS is concerned about the environmental damage that preliminary tree cutting would cause along the pipeline route. WCAS has urged NJDEP to tell FERC that no tree cutting is allowed before the final permits are issued. Unnecessary and significant damage would be incurred along the proposed route if the pipeline was not built or if the route was altered.
WCAS is also concerned about the proposed horizontal drilling proposed at the Moore’s Creek tributary crossing on Baldpate. Significant blasting could alter the hydrology of the system of small creeks that drain the north slope of Baldpate and eventually flow into Moore’s Creek. Several of these streams flow year- round, providing a critical source of water in water stressed times. The presence of breeding Louisiana Waterthrush indicates the high water quality of these streams. PennEast has stated that they will try horizontal drilling twice and then use the open trench method, which could cause significant and permanent damage to the fragile raised wetland bordering the tributary and the amphibians and reptiles that depend upon it.
WCAS is especially concerned about the effect of preliminary tree cutting and other ecological disturbances at Baldpate Mountain, which is highly sensitive to environmental disturbances due to its small size, its long and narrow shape which enhances edge effect, its fragile thin diabase soils, and the raised wetlands perched on top of nearly impenetrable diabase bedrock. WCAS has documented several species of conservation concern in the direct path of the pipeline route. The pipeline route would bisect a cedar woods used as a winter roost by the New Jersey threatened Long-eared Owls. Long-eared Owl winter roosts were also documented at two sites in Hunterdon Count adjacent to the pipeline route in a joint study by WCAS and NJ Conservation Foundation.
A pair of the state threatened Barred Owls was heard duetting in March in the vicinity of the pipeline route. Barred Owls were also reported at Baldpate in the springs of 2013 and 2014. The timing of the reports track the Eastern Chipmunk population explosions of 2012 and 2017, suggesting that Baldpate is an important hunting ground for these owls in breeding season, especially in years when chipmunks are abundant.
NJ listed birds documented as confirmed breeding in the pipeline route during a ten-year breeding bird census at Baldpate include NJ special concern species Wood Thrush, Veery, and Worm-eating Warbler. NJ special concern Yellow-breasted Chats breed in the Hunter meadow and along the powerline ROW adjacent to the pipeline route. The endangered breeding Red-shouldered Hawk bred on the north side of Baldpate in the 2017. Clear cutting the pipeline route would bring the edge closer to the breeding territories of interior woodland specialists Hooded and Kentucky Warblers. Baldpate is a stronghold of these species.
Several Eastern Box Turtles were found along or adjacent to the pipeline route in the breeding season by WCAS citizen scientists. The location of the hibernaculums is not known but considering the small range of the home territories, the hibernaculums are almost certainly in or adjacent to the pipeline route.
~ Sharyn Magee