Picture the iconic image of a lighthouse, its reason for being to evoke a feeling of safekeeping, a beacon in times of potential danger. Now imagine that lighthouse is actually the smokestack of a coal-fired power plant.
This bit of cognitive dissonance exists on the New Jersey shore, having been added in 1987 to the B.L. England Generating Station situated on Great Egg Harbor and adjacent to the Great Egg Harbor Wild and Scenic River. Originally built as a diesel and coal generator in 1961, the plant has experienced several incarnations over the years. The Sierra Club has been actively fighting it since 1998 and is now celebrating its permanent closure this May, the owners having nixed plans to repower its coal units with fracked gas.
The victory is even sweeter because the plant closure renders dead on arrival a gas pipeline, proposed in 2013, that would have cut through the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve (PNR), designated as the first national reserve in 1978 and a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve in 1988. At around 1.1 million acres, it occupies 22 percent of the land area in the most densely populated U.S. state. (It’s also home to the famed Jersey Devil!)
Jeff Tittel is director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey Chapter and has been involved in the 20-plus year effort to retire the plant, and more recently deny the pipeline. “There was a symbiotic relationship between them; they needed each other, so closing England kills the pipeline,” he says. “The power plant is in the reserve, and the law stipulates that any pipeline located there would have to primarily serve the needs of the reserve’s residents.”
The road to this outcome was long and winding. In 2006, following installation of a boiler that pushed the plant’s toxic emissions above allowable levels, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection issued a Clean Air Act violation. As a result the plant was supposed to close by 2007, but three extensions were granted by the administration of Governor Chris Christie. The intent was to buy time for the plant to be repowered for fracked gas, rather than be rebuilt at stricter environmental standards. This dodge allowed for the PNR pipeline proposal by South Jersey Gas in 2013. Also intended was extension of the plant’s operation from 60 to 365 days a year.
“That opened up the next phase of the battle,” says Tittel. The notion of a pipeline through the PNR drew other advocacy groups, including the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and Environment New Jersey, as well as thousands of citizens into a pitched battle to prevent it. Approval power over the pipeline is held by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, but court battles and shifting political winds tossed the outcome back and forth at a dizzying pace from 2013–2017.
One constant during this period was most New Jerseyans’ unwavering opposition to the pipeline. “Lots of people came out fighting,” says Tittel. “This is about tenacity and perseverance. Every time a road-block came up, we kept fighting through it. The difference people made was huge—emails, meetings, petitions, protests, kayak events, Pinelands walks. The other side used every trick possible to hurt citizens’ chances to act, but the public and the environment ultimately won.”
One such environmental warrior is Georgina Shanley. A retired registered nurse, she’s a native of Ireland who met her New Jersey-born husband, Steve Fenichel, overseas. They moved to the States and have lived in Ocean City, N.J., for 33 years, raising two boys “in the shadow of the B.L. England coal plant. Even when our sons were young, I’d see the smoke and say, ‘That has to go!’” she recalls. The couple began attending public meetings 25 years ago, bringing their knowledge of human health and physiology—Steve is an M.D. who has done research on particulate matter emitted from the plant—to speak out against air and water pollution.
When these long-time Sierra Club members heard there would be public meetings on the proposed pipeline, they jumped in. “We immediately went on alert,” Shanley says. “The Pinelands are the jewel of New Jersey’s crown, with ecosystems found nowhere else. Personally, I can’t stand arrogance. And the arrogance of putting a pipeline through this biosphere that can never be replicated, plus how it would affect us and our water supply—it was something we couldn’t accept.”
They mobilized, working with Club staff and activist groups akin to one they founded, Citizens United for Renewable Energy. Shanley is proud that in the summer of 2012, the number of people speaking out at Pinelands Commission hearings and requesting a “no” vote on the pipeline swelled from five people in May to more than 300 at the end of the summer. “We drew our own line in the sand and said, ‘No more,’” she adds. “There’s nothing more satisfying than standing up for what you believe in.”
In the face of yet another appeal by anti-pipeline groups, this one to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the owners of B.L. England cancelled the conversion plan from coal to fracked gas in February 2017—the realities around their expectations had changed. After allowing the plant to operate two more years, they announced the plug would be pulled in May as scheduled.
Tittel is optimistic that the plant has a future as a support facility for wind power. The current governor, Phil Murphy, has pledged to obtain 3.5 megawatts of power from offshore wind by 2030 as part of his clean energy plan, with turbines situated just 15 miles off the coast. “The irony is that 20 years ago the Sierra Club was fighting over a New Source Review for coal at the plant, and at the end of all the twists and turns this could become an offshore wind facility,” he says. “It’s one of best symbols for what we want to accomplish across the country.”
Tittel and Shanley both wonder if the site might also be utilized as a solar farm, sitting as it does on some 300 acres of land.
There is indeed a ray of hope emanating from the B.L. England plant…it’s just not coming from the “lighthouse.”