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Destroyed buildings in the centre of Wheatley, Ont., in Oct. 2021, two months after an explosion which was traced to methane and hydrogen sulphide leaking from one of three long-abandoned wells.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Ontario’s fire chiefs are pushing the provincial government to take action on potentially dangerous abandoned oil and gas wells after an explosion last year in Wheatley, Ont., ripped through its downtown and injured 20 people.

The executive director of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, Mark Tishman, and its president, Mississauga Deputy Chief Rob Grimwood, are scheduled to meet on Thursday with the province’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, Graydon Smith. They intend to urge him to change the way this kind of incident is handled and to do more to track down and cap the thousands of wells that dot the province, some of which date back to the 19th century.

Also planning to attend the meeting is Chatham-Kent Fire Chief Chris Case, who oversaw the emergency response to the initial gas leaks and the subsequent explosion in Wheatley, a small town about an hour southeast of Windsor.

The disaster, which took place in August, 2021, has been traced to methane and hydrogen sulphide leaking from one of three long-abandoned wells.

Where are Ontario’s abandoned gas wells, and what risks do they pose? Inside The Globe’s investigation

In an interview, Mr. Tishman said fire departments across Ontario are concerned, and that his organization wants to ensure future incidents are handled differently. He noted that the Ontario Petroleum Institute, an industry group, has said there are as many as 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the province.

Smaller fire departments, which commonly rely on volunteers, often lack the specialized gas detectors or other equipment needed to respond to an incident like the one in Wheatley, he said.

“I believe every fire chief in the province is keeping a keen eye on this,” he added.

A Globe and Mail investigation published in August revealed that Chief Case had repeatedly asked several provincial ministries for more help with the initial gas leaks in the months before the explosion. According to documents obtained through freedom of information legislation, he was told by Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry officials that they could only offer “commentary.” Methane and hydrogen sulphide were first detected in the basement of a former Irish pub in Wheatley on June 3, 2021.

Mr. Tishman said the fire chiefs also hope to push for the establishment of a provincial team of experts to respond to this kind of dangerous gas leak, similar to teams that already exist in Western provinces. He also said he will urge the government to seek expertise from Alberta and other jurisdictions.

He added that Ontario needs to consider changing the way its legislation deals with abandoned wells. Currently, Ontario largely leaves the problem up to local landowners or municipalities. While the province does spend $2-million to $3-million funding well cleanups each year, it is up to property owners to apply for the money, and only certain wells meet the criteria. Experts have warned that this system can stick owners with hefty cleanup costs – a disincentive for them to report potentially leaking wells.

Mr. Tishman said the fire chiefs association has already had “good conversations” with ministry officials.

“Our association isn’t looking to stir the pot up. We just want to ensure the fire and life safety of everyone that resides in Ontario,” he said. “We have to be prepared should this type of incident occur again.”

Mr. Smith was appointed Natural Resources Minister in June, about 10 months after the Wheatley explosion. While the province is working on a strategy to address problem oil and gas wells, he said last month that any major changes must wait until a final report comes from Golder Associates, the engineering firm contracted to work at the Wheatley site.

Ministry spokesperson Hayden Kenez said in an e-mail that Mr. Smith is “looking forward to discussing collaborative work opportunities with the OAFC to prepare for and manage risks posed by legacy oil and gas wells and subsurface gas migration hazards.”

Work is wrapping up in Wheatley, but it is still unclear when the remaining evacuation orders for nearby homes and businesses will be lifted.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said in an e-mailed statement that all three wells at the Wheatley site were plugged as of Sept. 27. It also said that Chatham-Kent, the municipality that includes Wheatley, is now taking the lead on any longer-term monitoring or further mitigation there.

The ministry also confirmed that further investigation had revealed that two of the three wells found near the site of the explosion are undocumented water wells that acted as conduits for leaking natural gas, not old gas wells, as its records had previously shown.

On Sept. 23, just days after Wheatley residents were told at a town-hall meeting that no new gas at the site had been detected, Chatham-Kent said in an e-mail to residents that “trace amounts” of methane had been found in a nearby parking lot. The municipality said the levels were “extremely low” and that “there is no risk to the public or staff on site.”

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said in an e-mail to The Globe that the gas found may be residual, from before the leaks were plugged.

Howard Gabert, a Wheatley resident and chair of the community’s Wheatley Task Force, said he was encouraged to hear that the fire chiefs are pushing for more action from the province.

“We know that the problem is big and widespread, and we know that there isn’t adequate expertise at the local level,” Mr. Gabert said.

“This is not something that should be dumped on local fire departments.”

He pointed to remarks by a representative from Golder, who told residents at the recent town hall that the site will need permanent gas and water monitoring and a pressure-relief well, possibly with a flare or some kind of containment system to deal with any escaping gas. But Mr. Gabert said no government has so far committed to paying for these measures.

Chatham-Kent staff members told their municipal council this week in a financial report on the Wheatley situation that the response to the explosion was transitioning from a provincially led investigation to a “monitoring and recovery phase.”

The report says the municipality had spent $17.67-million on the Wheatley response and received just over $10-million in aid from Queen’s Park, including grants for local businesses. It projects that Chatham-Kent will be out of pocket for $5.28-million in Wheatley costs for this year, which it will draw from reserves if other governments don’t help.

The report says the municipality will be responsible for paying for monitoring for gas in the air and water around the site for at least another six months. After that, it says, it will have Golder recommend “mitigation options which may include the installation of a permanent pressure relief vent” at the nearby parking lot.