Guest post by Lora Snyder
Many residents in the Philadelphia suburbs have suffered from Sunoco’s arrogant disregard for their quality of life and safety during the construction of Mariner East. Few have suffered more than the residents of Glen Riddle Station apartments in Middletown Township, Delaware County. But their landlord worked hard to protect their rights, and he recently won a significant victory in a case before the Public Utility Commission.
Mariner East 2 and 2X bisect the Glen Riddle Station apartment complex. As construction began in the fall of 2020, it became clear that Sunoco was not following the PUC’s requirements. In December 2020, the Iacobucci family, owners of the apartment complex, decided to file a complaint with the PUC. The initial complaint focused on safety issues and Sunoco’s failure to follow the rules for notifying the public. It soon became obvious that the biggest issue for residents was excessive noise.
Severe and constant noise. The pipeline was not only being constructed directly through the center of a 124-unit apartment complex but also in extremely close proximity to inhabited apartment buildings, two of which were a mere 15 feet from the construction easement. Sunoco constructed a 48 inch diameter direct bore drill staging area. The company brought in vacuum trucks to control groundwater coming into the bore, and they were a major source of continuous, ear-splitting noise. Sunoco erected sound walls, but they were largely ineffective.
There was a significant period of time when vacuum trucks were in use without the sound walls in place. And even once the walls were in place, sound levels were often, in the words of PUC judge Cheskis, “unreasonable”. He wrote, “… the EPA standard recommends limits of 75 decibels or lower for an 8-hour exposure for the general public…. Sound measurements taken at the property have averaged in the high 60 decibels with spikes over 90 and 100 decibels…. At 80-85 decibels, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that hearing loss can occur after two hours of exposure. At 95-100 decibels, the CDC indicates that hearing loss can occur after just 15 minutes of exposure. There were 17 incidents of noise level readings at the Glen Riddle property higher than 85 decibels and an additional six incidents of noise level readings of between 75 and 85 decibels for a total of 23 incidents of unreasonably high noise levels.”
Given the nature of this construction site, Sunoco should have done more to mitigate noise levels. Judge Cheskis agreed with Glen Riddle’s expert witness that Glen Riddle residents and employees were at increased risk of hearing loss according to various federal regulations and studies and that the noise levels created an overall unhealthy environment that should have been prevented by Sunoco.
Notably, the sound levels were documented by the management of the apartment complex. Sunoco tried to have the videos documenting the metering of excessive noise levels thrown out because they were not done by “experts”. The judge let them stand.
Failure to inform the affected residents. The PUC judge found that Sunoco failed to follow the required processes for informing residents of what was going to happen and when it would happen, so that they could have a chance to make suitable arrangements. Most significantly, Sunoco’s inadequate communications to the residents of Glen Riddle constituted (a) a violation of Section 1501 of the Public Utility Code for failure to provide safe and reasonable service; (b) a violation of Section 59.33 of the Commission’s regulations for failing to properly warn and protect the public from danger, and exercising reasonable care to reduce the hazards to which employees, customers and others may be subjected to by reason of its equipment and facilities; and (c) a violation of Sunoco’s requirement to continuously improve its communications to the public.
This ruling was precedent-setting because Sunoco, although the court ruled it met its obligation to communicate with the Township and the owner’s of Glen Riddle Apartments, failed in its primary responsibility, which was to effectively communicate with the most vulnerable parties, the residents. A ruling of this nature had never been made against Sunoco / ET prior to this decision.
Creation of a fire hazard. Recorded evidence demonstrated that fire hazards were created or exacerbated at the Glen Riddle property as a result of Sunoco’s construction activities. Because Sunoco installed 30 foot sound barrier walls, which were of inadequate effectiveness 15 feet from resident apartments, hazards were created either by inhibiting or preventing an emergency responder’s access to apartment buildings. Access was either blocked by a sound barrier wall or the 30 foot wall was too close to the building to properly access it.
Where issues of community safety are concerned, the PUC Commission possesses irrefutable authority to exercise its jurisdiction. In this case, given the circumstance of major construction in close proximity to a residential area, extra efforts were required that were not taken by Sunoco. More should have been done by Sunoco to improve the well-being and enhance the safety of the residents occupying the 124 apartments at Glen Riddle.
The judge’s conclusions. Although Sunoco held easements to perform this construction work, its actions were still deemed unreasonable by the PUC with regard to fire hazards, noise levels, and inadequate communications with the public. This was especially relevant because the construction occurred during a major pandemic when most residents were working or attending school from home. This major factor colored the lens through which Glen Riddle’s complaint was viewed.
The initial ruling on March 8, 2022 by Joel H. Cheskis, Deputy Chief Administrative Law Judge, was adopted by the PUC Commissioners on June 16, 2022. The formal complaint filed by Glen Riddle Station, L.P. against Sunoco Pipeline, L.P. was therefore sustained by the PUC Commissioners with regard to the allegations of fire hazards, noise levels, and inadequate communications with the public.
The ruling included a civil penalty fine of $51,000 against Energy Transfer’s subsidiary Sunoco Pipeline LP for violations related to construction of the pipeline. The fine, of course, is trivial to Sunoco. But the loss in this case further tarnishes the company’s already egregious reputation.
The full text of the PUC Ruling is here: https://www.puc.pa.gov/pcdocs/1736612.pdf
This PUC ruling is a momentous victory for the community, and most particularly the residents at Glen Riddle Apartments. It validates that the health, safety and welfare of the residents is paramount. It also confirms that if everyday citizens and community businesses can document and present legally persuasive findings it makes a clear significant difference.
Throughout this process, the Iacobucci Organization, and Stephen Iacobucci in particular, stood up for the rights of the tenants, working through both the PUC and the courts, attempting to get Sunoco to abide by its obligations. Through his persistent efforts, Iacobucci showed that a small, family business can prevail against a huge corporation with unlimited legal resources. That is worth celebrating.