Sunoco Pipeline’s plans to cut its contentious Mariner East pipeline project through the middle of a Delaware County apartment complex has aroused protests from the complex owner, who says the company’s plan raises unresolved safety issues.
Stephen A. Iacobucci, managing director of the family-owned Glen Riddle Station Apartments in Middletown Township, says Sunoco only told him last week that it was moving forward in several days with plans to cleave the 124-unit complex with the pipelines, including the erection of 30-foot sound walls within a few feet of some buildings. The walls are to be temporary, coming down after construction is finished in four months.
“They’re not providing any information or any way to help make a reasonable accommodation for residents, and just randomly starting up right before Thanksgiving is inconsiderate,” said Iacobucci. “But now the real problem is the safety concern.”
Iacobucci said he fears that Sunoco, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer LP, plans to erect three-story fabric sound barriers too close to buildings, which he said could impede firefighters should a blaze break out. He also says that even with the sound barriers, construction will be noisy and disruptive for tenants who are working at home during the pandemic, and he fears a tenant exodus.
“We don’t want anyone put into an unsafe environment or for them to come in here and do something that is unsafe,” said Iacobucci. “That’s our overarching urgency, given how quickly and aggressively they are trying to push this project through.”
Mark Kirchgasser, chairman of the Middletown Township Council, said he shares Iacobucci’s concerns about safety, and the township’ emergency response officials are in talks with Sunoco to ensure that firefighters will have access to all sides of the apartment buildings.
“We’ve encouraged Sunoco ETP to proactively communicate with our residents to make sure that they stay informed of all the activity that’s going on,” said Kirchgasser.
Sunoco surveyors on Saturday marked the boundaries of the project, and the company began delivering equipment to the site this week. On Wednesday, a crew began soft digging operations to identify and to mark underground utilities.
Sunoco says it sent letters in September to property owners in the area, including Glen Riddle Station’s management, and it held a pre-construction meeting on Nov. 18 with the complex’s management at the request of its attorneys.
“We have been instructed by the apartment’s attorneys not to communicate directly with the Glen Riddle Station Apartments residents,” Lisa Coleman, an Energy Transfer spokeswoman, said in an email Wednesday.
The dispute with Glen Riddle Station Apartments is the latest dustup for Sunoco Pipeline, which is building two new pipelines to carry natural gas liquids such as propane and ethane to an export terminal in Marcus Hook. The new pipelines mostly follow longstanding easements that contain older pipelines, including the first of three Mariner East pipelines.
The Mariner East project, which is nearly completed, has encountered numerous trouble spots during construction of its 350-mile path across Pennsylvania, but few locations rival the epic slog the project has encountered as it threads through the densely populated Glen Riddle section of Middletown.
Two years ago Sunoco attempted to horizontally bore a 3,500-foot underground pathway into which it would install its two new pipelines. But leaks of drilling fluid during construction spilled into streams – the discharges are called “inadvertent returns.” And groundwater also gushed out of the bored hole. Sunoco abandoned the effort, filled the unfinished bore with grout and went back to the drawing board.
Sunoco said it considered drilling even deeper underground, but the bedrock in the area was inconsistent and still likely to leak during construction. It also considered a new route altogether, but said in papers filed with the DEP that “reasonable alternatives are not existent due to the density of roads and developments surrounding the existing route.”
So rather than drilling deeply underground, the company proposed building the pipelines on the existing route using conventional methods – open trenches and shorter, shallower underground boring techniques that allow the installation of pipeline under roads, waterways and railways.
The conventional techniques, though less likely to contaminate waterways during construction, would cause much more disruption to the surface, and to any residents living near the route.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in September approved the “major modification” of Sunoco’s plan, allowing the open- trench construction in Glen Riddle. The new plan not only impacts Glen Riddle Station, but also affects about 100 other properties, including a second apartment complex, the 112-unit Tunbridge Apartments that will be also be bisected by a trench across its property.
Energy Transfer sent a letter on Sept. 22 to landowners in the area explaining that the change in construction methods would minimize the potential for inadvertent returns, and “will also shorten the length of time that construction is inconveniencing the local community.” It told residents they would begin to see the contractor mobilizing equipment in “the next few weeks.”
Iacobucci, 31, whose grandfather built the apartment complex in 1971, says that Sunoco agreed to meet with him last week only after Glen Riddle Station’s lawyers reached out. “We have very little information that we can relay in a timely manner to our residents to give them an expectation of what’s happening,” he said.
Glen Riddle Station’s owner has had a testy relationship with Sunoco Pipeline in the past.
After Sunoco switched plans to an open-trench construction, it approached the apartment complex last year about acquiring temporary rights of way for about a half-acre of work area it needs to stage its equipment, in addition to the 50-foot permanent easement it already had.
But Sunoco and the apartment owners were unable to negotiate the temporary easement. The company, which is a public utility, instead went to Delaware County Common Pleas Court for a condemnation proceeding in June to get access using eminent domain powers.
Middletown Township has “reviewed and issued the appropriate permits,” said Coleman, Sunoco’s spokeswoman.
Some long-term residents have taken sides with the landlords, saying they were unaware of Sunoco’s construction plans until recently, and are worried about safety.
“They’re not making arrangements for emergency routes,” said Genie Horsky, a resident of 29 years who retired this year from an insurance company . “We were just informed of this the other day.”
Paul Schultz, 73, a retired aerospace worker who has lived in the complex for 32 years, said he is worried about the competence of the workers installing the pipeline.
“I understand the pipeline is necessary and I am not against it, but I think it has to be done in a safe manner and with respect for the people it will affect,” he said. “If the pipeline would communicate some answers for the questions I have raised, I am sure the public would be more supportive of the pipeline.”
Iacobucci acknowledged that his raising of alarms at this stage is unlikely to delay the project.
“We’re not under any misconceptions that we’re going to stop them, but we are insisting and we will continue to insist that they communicate with us, and that they provide us with all of the adequate safety measures that need to be in place,” he said.