At its peak, more than 300 people were standing outside of St. Anne’s Church in Browns Mills, in the rain and near-freezing cold, forbidden from joining the Pinelands Commission meeting. The ostensibly public meeting is for comments on whether the natural gas pipeline, as proposed by South Jersey Gas, will benefit the Pinelands, and if it conforms to the commission’s charter and to state environmental laws.
At 8:45 am, forty five minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, people were refused entry because the hall was filled to its capacity of 258 people. While the empty sanctuary and other rooms in the church can hold more, they are unavailable.
A handicapped woman who is unable to stand for long periods arrives at almost exactly 9:30, but is refused entry by a state trooper. She is given a chair. The trooper would not allow anyone to use the restrooms. “It’s one for one. If one person leaves, I’ll allow one person in. Sorry folks, we’re filled to capacity. Fire code.” Later, people on the inside report up to 20 empty seats, but according to the officers, “We’re counting physical bodies, not seats.”
Despite this, late arriving members of the commission and the press are let in. As one commissioner enters, he is stopped by a woman who requests that the meeting be postponed. The commissioner gave a terse and uninterested reply before quickly entering.
According to the Pinelands Commission spokesman the meeting was moved because, “Ultimately, we wanted to make sure we have enough space.” The meeting was not just for public comment. The normal monthly meeting for the commission, originally scheduled for January 13, was instead moved to the beginning of today’s meeting, adding to the confusion of when the public portion would start, and therefore when people should arrive.
“We want a larger space! This meeting’s a disgrace!”
Lena Smith of Food and Water Watch New Jersey said, “This process from the very beginning has intentionally tried to keep the public out.” Lena was later allowed in, shouted at the back of the room to the commission, “There are more than 200 people outside, shut it down!,” and was escorted out by police. A photo of her is the cover photo in the Burlington County Times cover story of the meeting.
At 9:45, Bill, a member of Chesterfield’s People Over Pipelines and a man with a booming voice, shouts to the officer, “You’ve got 100 people out here, shut it down!” The crowd breaks into a chant of, “Shut it down!” He tells the officer, “This is a public hearing! There are legal requirements for a public hearing! I want to participate, they have to shut it down! This is against the fundamental requirements of due process in a public hearing. You can’t do this.” He tells me the goal of this tactic is to tire the people out so they go away and stop fighting, in order to speed up and ease the permitting process.
For those against the pipeline, the goal is either for everyone to be let in to give their comments–and to hear everybody else’s–or for the meeting postponed and rescheduled for a larger venue. In August of last year, a similar situation happened. A public comment meeting was scheduled at a conference room in the Ramada Inn in Bordentown Township, that had a capacity for 200 people. Both then and today, there were reports of pro-pipeline union people being bussed in early to fill seats and further limit the seats available to the public. The meeting was postponed and rescheduled to the Chesterfield High School auditorium in October.
What do we want?! Shut it down! What do we want?! Shut it down!
10-year-old Ben was in line with his parents instead of attending school. His parents chose for this to be his first taste of real activism. “I’m here to help the Pinelands stay safe. And the world and nature to stay safe. And no polluting. And no danger. They’re trying to put a pipe there to make money. But you don’t have to put it in the Pinelands.”
At 10:30, one of the commissioners comes outside to collect a list of all those who wants to come in and give their comments (and then exit again). The person that escorts her out shouts, “She’s a commissioner!” The woman pauses at that, and then says, “I’m trying to accommodate everybody.” I ask if the commission was trying to accommodate everyone, why would they choose a venue that could handle less than half of the people? She did not respond.
Shame! Shame! Shame!
After five full minutes of heated conversation between the commissioner and the crowd, Pemberton resident Mark Georgia asks, “What is your capacity?” She responds, “I’m just a business person. I’m on the clerical unit.” But the crowd was told very clearly, while she was standing right there, that she was on the commission. “That was a mistake.”
Jennifer Coffey of the non-profit ANJEC, The Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions has been involved in the fight for New Jersey’s environment for 15 years, and holds two graduate degrees in environmental studies. “I have never had the indignity of attending a meeting like this. I have been out here for three hours. My toes hurt it is so cold, and I’m relatively young and able bodied. There’s no bathrooms!” She makes the point that calling people in from outside to make their comments is unfair, because they have not had the chance to hear any of the preceding comments for context.
At 10:45, about half go around to the other side of the building, in order to shout at the windows where the meeting is being held. Two nondescript police cars, one on each sides about 200 feet away, keep tabs.
Some in the crowd are coordinating with those on the inside. One is watching a livestream of the meeting. At least two people use much of their testimony time to stand in silence, so the commission can hear the shouts of those being excluded. About half of those on the outside remain at the front door to ensure they will be able to make their comments when called.
Let us in! Let us in!
Jill Popko, former mayor of Bordentown is blowing a whistle. During her tenure, Popko was ejected by police out of an October public-comment meeting. “These people’s taxes pay the wages of the Pinelands Commission…. When these people go to the pearly gates, the Lord Almighty is going to look at them and say, ‘I don’t think so!’ These people are destroying the earth, they are destroying New Jersey, and they are getting paid to do it.”
Post-pone! Post-pone! Post-pone!
There are at least five families with young pre-school children standing out in the rain. One mother of a five-year-old was outside for four hours before being let in to make her comments. Other parents escape to their cars for a break from the cold and rain (and from having to constantly hold hands with their children), with some giving up and going home.
A mother from Wynnewood Pennsylvania has traveled an hour and 20 minutes with her 17-month-old girl and four-year-old son. She was walking them to her car to take a break from the cold, and was told that she would get a phone call when it was her turn to speak. Why did she travel this far? “Because we love the Pine Barrens. If you want to protect something that you love, you come out for it.”
Afterwards, a mother from Tabernacle tells me her story in a text message:
I arrived at 9:30 but it took ten minutes or so to find parking at the Veteran’s Park at the end of the block. The doors were locked when we got to the door at about 9:45. I waited in the rain with my two kids, ages four and three for about 15 minutes. We returned to the car where we waited for another hour and twenty minutes. We had packed lunch and ate in the car. We then went to a local store to let them get some energy out. Drove back around 1:30 and the parking lot was still full and people were still outside. We had to abandon and go home, because it was too difficult for my kids.
Another mother says, “I don’t want my children drinking dirty water.” I joke that her standards are too high.
This is on purpose! Shame on you! This is on purpose! Shame on you!
The meeting was not postponed, and the cold did indeed disperse most of the crowd. When I left at 12:45, there were around 20 people left. If their goal was to tire people out so they would go away and stop fighting, they succeeded. At least for today.
Bill, the gentleman with the loud voice, tells me that it is getting close to the point where more direct action, such as creating a Pinelands version of Standing Rock, may be necessary. “They can’t vote on it today. But the next meeting in February, they’re going to approve it, guaranteed. The only thing we have left is direct action and civil disobedience…. The only other thing we have is lawsuits.”
Rachel Delgado-Simmons, a resident of Pemberton, tells me, “This is my church. Saint Anne’s is my church. My mother sat in on the meetings where they created the Pinelands Commission forty years ago. They created this charter to protect the Pine Barrens. We live in the Pinelands and we’re going to save the Pinelands.”