Tom Cuce spent three years building the retirement house of his dreams, his little slice of pastoral bliss on a winding country road in upper Bucks County.
He envisioned a place to plant vegetables and a back stretch of tree cover to do some hunting. A cluster of compressor engines that push through 250 million cubic feet of natural gas every day wasn't a part of that plan. And yet, it may soon be a reality.
Adelphia Gateway LLC has included a "Quakertown Compressor Station" in its proposal to repurpose a hybrid oil and natural gas pipeline it purchased last November from Talen Energy Corp. The station's plans – now under review by state and federal authorities – call for three compressors, a total of 5,625 horsepower that will run around the clock to pressurize the natural gas as it makes it way down to a refinery in Marcus Hook.
That refinery is more than 50 miles from Cuce's back porch in West Rockhill Township. The compressor station would be about 500 feet away.
"The reason why we're against this thing is, number one, it's in the middle of a residential neighborhood," Cuce said. "It shouldn't exist here. It shouldn't be built somewhere where the zoning doesn't allow it."
He said his protests have done little to sway Adelphia Gateway or township officials, whom he faults for not being aggressive enough in defending him and his neighbors. Those officials take a different tack, saying there's little they can do to influence a project that's under federal jurisdiction.
Now, Cuce and Rose Merrigan, his longtime partner, are rallying their neighbors in voicing opposition to the Adelphia project. A group of them plans to caravan to a Dec. 4 hearing that the state Department of Environmental Protection is holding in their township as part of its review process.
As some residents dig in to fight the pipeline project, others on Rich Hill Road and the surrounding streets are pulling up and moving on.
Sheila Vogelsang McCarthy, who owns 11 acres next door to Cuce, wrote a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which has oversight of natural-gas pipelines — saying she'd be willing to sell her property to Adelphia for $600,000.
McCarthy, 77, had already planned to sell her home, she wrote in her letter, and the announcement of the "mammoth compressor structure" only motivated her further.
"Evidently, federal authority supersedes local regulations and the interests of homeowners," she wrote. "I might add I still pay taxes on this property, and even if the value declines, my taxes will not while the pipeline companies pay nothing and yet make substantial profits."
The pipeline company hasn't responded to her offer, and signs posted outside her home indicate that it will go on sale at a public auction Dec. 5.
Adelphia, a subsidiary of New Jersey Resources, maintains that it's acting in the best interest of the community as it plans its pipeline, which also includes another compressor station in Marcus Hook as it cuts south through more densely packed communities in Montgomery, Chester and Delaware Counties.
"We will continue to consult with West Rockhill Township and adjacent neighbors to the extent possible on creating a visually harmonious facility while delivering much-needed natural gas safely to its intended end users," Katelyn Howard, a spokeswoman for the company, said in a statement.
But Cuce and Merrigan can't understand why Adelphia chose to put the station on a 1.5 acre lot surrounded by homes. The lot is owned by Interstate Energy Co., a subsidiary of Talen, and houses a small metering station for the Talen pipeline. When the project is formally approved by FERC, the property will transfer to Adelphia.
"The site is too small to be safe; it's as simple as that," Cuce said. "The only reason they're putting it here is to save money."
Howard said the company chose the lot as part of its strategy of relying on brownfield locations where infrastructure is already in place, saying that allows it "to keep construction and impact to the community to a minimum."
The compressor station will be built using technology designed to minimize noise pollution, Howard said. Plans Adelphia filed with FERC estimate that the station will operate at a maximum noise level of 52 decibels along its boundaries with other properties.
Howard likened that to the sound made by a "household dishwasher," and noted that it falls within the permissible noise range set by the township.
But that does little to put the residents' minds at ease.
"There are large developments downwind of this that will receive the air pollutants of this facility, because of the size of this facility," Merrigan said. "And what about us? This pollution is going to fall into our backyard constantly. We won't get any respite from it."
In filings with the state DEP, Adelphia has said the natural gas-fed combustion engines that power the compressors will emit carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds, albeit in levels they estimate to be below what the department considers a "major source" of pollutants.
The DEP will consider those estimates and other details as part of its air quality review process, which began this month. The department's upcoming hearing will allow residents to voice their concerns as the DEP, along with FERC, weighs the environmental impact of the pipeline.
It's a process that's left local leaders feeling powerless as they're battered by complaints from the people they represent.
Greg Lippincott, West Rockhill Township manager, is not used to having his authority trumped by a natural-gas company and its ranks of lawyers and experts.
"We are having a tough time letting everyone know that FERC is the decision-maker, not the township," he said. "In 99 percent of land developments, the township decides. This is one instance where the township does not decide, and it's very frustrating."
Mary C. Eberle, the township's solicitor, sent a strongly worded letter about the project to FERC in July, saying representatives from Adelphia were "very vague" during their initial meetings about the station, which she said was originally described to township officials as a "small equipment enclosure."
When Adelphia staff later came to a township Planning Commission meeting to publicly reveal the plans, the scale and scope of the project surprised them.
"The entirety of this process has been replete with a lack of effective communication and disingenuous dialogue on the part of Adelphia's representatives," Eberle wrote. "The project interferes with the residents' right to reasonable use and enjoyment of their property."
In its filings with FERC, Adelphia has not specified how large the station that houses the compressors will be. But Eberle's letter cited estimates from Adelphia of a 45- to 55-foot structure "covering 8,000 to 10,000 square feet." A rendering of the station that the company mailed to Cuce and Merrigan is more specific: a 35-foot building covering 11,120 square feet.
Howard, the Adelphia spokeswoman, said those renderings were drafts provided to homeowners "to continue the conversation and get their input." She declined to provide the draft to the Inquirer and Daily News.
In a response to Eberle's letter, Adelphia Gateway counsel William P. Scharfenberg wrote that the company "never sought to hide its plans leading up to the Planning Commission meeting," and has continued to seek out and engage with West Rock Hill officials.
Scharfenberg noted that the pipeline is not subject to the local laws or oversight, given its status as a interstate project overseen by FERC.
Tamara Young-Allen, a spokeswoman for FERC, confirmed that the agency's initial approval of this type of project supersedes any local requirements.
That was a grim revelation to Cuce, Merrigan and their neighbors.