By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank won the first round in a legal battle with a natural gas provider over unsightly valves the utility insists must be installed along storefronts downtown for safety reasons.
In a decision issued in Freehold Monday, state Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson rejected New Jersey Natural Gas Company’s request for an order requiring the borough to immediately issue permits for the replacement work.
The ruling comes despite written testimony by NJNG employees that two underground regulators were found to have been leaking beneath sidewalks on Broad Street just last week.
The court case, brought about by a lawsuit filed by NJNG in March, followed a yearlong stalemate involving the gas company, borough officials and Red Bank RiverCenter, the autonomous business promotion agency, which has sided with the town in opposing the changes.
NJNG contends it needs to replace and reposition 88 service regulators, used to lower the pressure of gas as it moves from the main lines to customers, and to vent excess gas. The company says the 20-year-old devices, located in pits in the sidewalks covered by steel plates, are corroding and unsafe in their present locations, and need to be moved above-ground against storefronts.
Red Bank and RiverCenter object not only on aesthetic grounds but contend that placing the valves against storefronts raises safety issues, including exposure to impact damage, atmospheric corrosion and pedestrian traffic. In March, officials blasted the gas company at a press conference held outside Jay and Silent Bobs Secret Stash, where an above-ground regulator was installed more than a year ago, before the issue flared up.
In a late filing before Lawson issued his ruling on the request for immediate permits, NJNG contended that a utility employee doing routine work on June 11 smelled gas outside 65 Broad Street. The sidewalk pit at that location outside the long-closed Nevada Exchange store contained a two-percent concentration of gas due to a leak at the junction of the regulator and the service line to the building.
One day later, a similar incident occurred outside 37 and 39 Broad Street, in the vicinity of Duxiana, NJNG said in its filing. The company claims above-ground valves are safer than those in the sidewalk pits.
In his ruling Monday, Lawson wrote that NJNG has shown “that at least a possibility that harm is likely to result” if the regulators are left to corrode underground. “The risk of explosion or harm to the public from a gas leak needs no hyperbole from NJNG to be apparent,” he wrote.
Still, Lawson rejected the company’s request for a preliminary injunction.
“Simply because harm comes from leaks, and leaks can come from corroded regulators, it does not follow” that the only way to reduce the risk is to order the immediate issuance of permits, he wrote. The company demonstrated as recently as last week that it can replace faulty valves without having to move them above-ground, he wrote.
“The judge didn’t buy that,” Councilman Mike DuPont told redbankgreen. “He said, ‘I don’t see the emergency.'”
The lawsuit continues. In court papers, NJNG says it proposed a plan earlier this year to relocate 23 regulators behind buildings, at customer expense, reducing the number of sidewalk devices to 55.
Here’s the judge’s decision: NJNG v RB 061812