By JOHN T. WARD
[SEE UPDATE TO THIS STORY AT THE BOTTOM]
Red Bank Mayor Pasquale Menna and 11th-District state Senator Jennifer Beck teed up New Jersey Natural Gas Wednesday for a plan to install emergency venting devices in front of downtown storefronts.
Labeling them “Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals,” the historically inclined mayor blasted unnamed NJNG officials for a “tyrannical decision to put in these horse hitches,” he said at a midday press conference outside Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash on Broad Street, where one of the offending valves was installed a year ago.
The devices, now located beneath the sidewalks in access holes covered with steel plates, are used to prevent surges in gas pressure into stores, restaurants and apartments by venting excess pressure through small, unobtrusive pipes located against storefonts, said borough Administrator Stanley Sickels.
The gas company, officials said, insists that the devices must now be brought above ground for safety reasons, saying that they’re prone to deterioration from salt and other ice-melting products.
But local officials said that over a year of conversations with NJNG, company officials have refused to provide any inspection data demonstrating that the underground devices are a problem. The only instance of a leak in the past 20 years occurred outside the former home of David Levine Salon, and was addressed by creating a new and better-sealed access hole, Sickels said.
Town officials object to the plan to replace 88 such valves in the business district with above-ground devices, 82 of which they said would abut storefronts. They cited both aesthetic and safety concerns.
“This solution is frankly an intrusion to the downtown that we’ve spent millions to upgrade,” said Beck, a former borough council member who maintains a legislative office on Monmouth Street. The exposed valves could also be damaged by skateboards, snow shovels and accidents involving cars that jump curbs, officials said.
Beck said NJNG “would not share any information about other options, but my instinct is that there are plenty of other options.”
Calling the company’s approach “heavy-handed,” she said, “I don’t understand the need for secrecy when they are talking about invading our public space.”
“We have a genuine concern for the aesthetic value of the downtown as well as the safety issue,” said Councilman Ed Zipprich.
Beck said she plans to introduce legislation Thursday to force the utility to install new underground enclosures with tight-fitting covers.
Officials said they did not know of other towns that had dealt with the issue.
[UPDATE: Mike Kinney, a spokesman for NJNG parent New Jersey Resources who was not available for comment when the original version of this article was published, said NJNG filed suit Wednesday in state Superior Court in Freehold against the borough and Red Bank RiverCenter seeking to force the borough to issue permits for the valve replacement work. The town refused to issue the permits in late February, said Kinney.
The denial of the permits was not mentioned by town officials during Wednesday's press conference.
Kinney said the issue is one of safety raised by corrosion of below-ground valves. In its court filings, the company maintains that "accelerated atmospheric corrosion" of the underground valves "creates a significant risk of a catastrophic gas leak" and that the borough's objection to the work is "for purely aesthetic reasons."
In its coverage area of Monmouth, Ocean and Morris counties, NJNG had 280 underground valves in 17 towns to replace, Kinney said. So far, 144 have been replaced in Asbury Park, Atlantic Highlands, Freehold and elsewhere he said, without any other towns refusing to issue permits. Of the 136 remaining valves designated for replacement, 88 are in Red Bank, he said.
Kinney tells redbankgreen that the company is sensitive to the look of the downtown streetscape, and has worked with the business community in Asbury Park to obscure the valves with planters and other measures. "But when it comes to well-being and aesthetics, we're going to choose safety every time," he said.
Here's a FAQ prepared by the company, complete with photos showing corrosion to underground valves: NJNG FAQ 031412]