ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Two environmental groups are appealing the approval of a hotly contested natural gas pipeline through the ecologically sensitive New Jersey Pinelands region by the state agency created to protect the area.

The Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey filed the appeal Monday of a Feb. 24 decision by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission to approve a pipeline through the federally protected reserve.

The pipeline is designed to help a power plant in southern New Jersey switch from coal to gas.

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, says the commission failed to follow its own guidelines that require any project in the Pinelands to primarily benefit people living there. The gas plant, he says, is largely outside the Pinelands preserve.

“We are going to court to do the job the Pinelands Commission is supposed to do, which is to protect the Pinelands,” Tittel said. “The Pinelands Commission have sold out the Pinelands and the environment by approving the South Jersey Gas pipeline.”

The commission declined to comment.

It was the most emotionally charged jobs-versus-environment clash in recent New Jersey history and was closely watched by environmental and energy groups around the nation, particularly with a new presidential administration seen as more supportive of the energy industry.

South Jersey Gas plans to run the pipeline mostly under or alongside existing roads. The company says it already operates over 1,400 miles of gas mains and 133 miles of elevated pressure lines within the Pinelands without harming the environment.

After the proposal was defeated in 2014, the executive director of the Pinelands Commission unilaterally decided that it met the agency’s criteria and was therefore approved. Environmentalists sued, and a court ordered the commission to take a new vote.

Environmental groups fear the pipeline will harm the fragile Pinelands and set a bad precedent for future development. They say it will cause a loss of habitat and increase runoff and erosion in an area that is home to an aquifer that is estimated to hold 17 trillion gallons of some of the nation’s purest water.

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