Pipeline company sues for canal gasoline fire damages

The Princeton Packet

June 10, 1986 

Pipeline company sues for canal gasoline fire damages 

By Kathleen Cannon
Staff Writer 

The owner of the pipeline that split open Jan. 31, spilling gasoline which subsequently caught fire in the Delaware and Raritan Canal, alleges workers ruptured the pipe sometime last year and concealed the damage. 

The Sun Pipe Line Co., based in Oklahoma, filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Trenton on May 20, alleging six firms participated in either the damage or the coverup, according to David Hackney, spokesman for the company, and U.S. District Court officials.

The company seeks both actual and punitive damages from five of the firms, he said. While the lawsuit does not specify a dollar amount, Mr. Hackney said the firm has spent more than $1 million in cleanup costs since the fire. 

“The damage resulted in the rupture of the pipeline, the release of gas, and the subsequent fire on Jan. 31,” Mr. Hackney said, adding investigators discovered a 4-inch long gash in the pipe, buried 42 inches below the ground along the West Windsor side of the canal. 

While the leak was discovered the afternoon of Jan. 31 and emergency workers labored throughout the day to contain the spill, the fire did not occur until 8 p.m., when fumes from the spill were ignited by an electric heater in a pumphouse about 1,000 feet south of Alexander Road, authorities said. 

The Sun Pipe Line Co. alleges the six defendants named in the suit damaged the line sometime between January 1985 — when contractors started dredging the canal — and the day of the fire, but Mr. Hackney said the company could not be more specific. 

Listed as defendants are the Conti Construction Co. of South Plainfield, which dredged that portion of the canal last year; J&L Excavators of Lakewood, which installed silt fences nearby to prevent mud from an adjacent building site from draining into the canal; and PRC Engineering Inc. of New York, which conducted engineering work for the dredging project. 

Also named are Canal Pointe Associates Inc. of Manalapan, the owner-developer of the housing site on the West Windsor side of the canal; Princeton-Carnegie Associates III of West Windsor, the original owners of the property; and Jacoma Corp. of Old Bridge, a masonry and construction firm. 

The lawsuit alleges that “during the course of the work, Conti and J&L or both struck the line with equipment causing damage. After the pipeline was struck, Conti, J&L, Princeton-Carnegie Associates, and Canal Pointe Associates concealed the damage to the pipeline and did not inform the Sun Pipe Line Co. or any governmental agency of any damage to the pipeline,” said Mr. Hackney.

The spokesman said following the explosion, investigators from the firm discovered both evidence that the pipeline had been damaged and the damage had been concealed but he declined to be more specific. 

“Even if they had tried to repair the line, they were responsible to report the break so the proper repairs could be made,” he said.

However, the firms listed as defendants and contacted Monday denied knowledge of the break or of an effort to conceal it. 

“We were working adjacent to the site, installing silt fences,” said Harvey Onore, J&L business administrator. Wooden stakes used to hold the soil erosion prevention devices were only driven into the ground about 10 to 12 inches, he said. 

“In summary, we had nothing to do with it,” Mr. Onore said. 

Frank Petrino, attorney for Canal Pointe Associates, said his client also denied involvement. “Our investigation suggests it was not our fault nor any of the firms that performed work for us. To my knowledge, the allegations are untrue as they relate to Canal Pointe Associates and J&L and the plaintiff knows that,” he said. 

Spokesmen for PRC Engineering and Princeton-Carnegie Associates said their firms could not have damaged the pipeline because they were not using heavy equipment at the site. 

Representatives of Conti Construction Co. and Jacoma Corp. could not be reached for comment by press time.

Sun Pipe Line Co. is seeking reimbursement for all costs associated with the cleanup and loss, said Mr. Hackney, adding, for example, the 150,000 gallons of gasoline lost was worth $125,000 at the time. 

In addition, the fire caused about $2 million worth of damage to trees and shrubs in the surrounding Delaware and Raritan State Park. Canal Commission Executive Director James Amon said he “doesn’t believe” his agency will seek legal action against the defendants in the Sun Pipe Line Co. lawsuit. 

“We’ve been discussing with the Sun insurance company a restoration plan. But we haven’t worked out any details yet,” he said, calling the restoration a “major” undertaking.

While some 1,500 to 2,000 trees along a 2,000-foot wide area were killed, Mr. Amon said the ground has started to sprout. “There is life from the ground. It was frozen and covered by snow at the time and now it’s alive and thriving,” he said, adding he hopes to start a new planting in July or August. 

In the meantime, the West Windsor police department is no longer investigating the incident. 

According to police Lt. Gregory Eldridge, “Our initial investigation failed to reveal any criminal act. At this point, our investigation is inactive.”

Whether the town’s investigation will remain closed will depend on what new facts are revealed in the court case, he said.

U.S. District Court officials said the defendants have 20 or 35 days to file an answer to the suit once they are served with it. The plaintiff has 120 days to serve it to the defendants once it has been filed with the court.

Since the lawsuit was filed May 20, this means it could be up to four months before conferences are scheduled before a U.S. District Court judge, a spokesman said.

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