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Ontario orders owner to fix pipe leaking dangerous gases, but he says their plan is too risky and expensive

David Cockerham at his home in Leamington, Ont., on Nov. 3, 2022, where an abandoned well is leaking sour gas. Cockerham and the Ontario government have disagreed for years on how to clean up the well.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

When David Cockerham wanted to move out of Toronto around 25 years ago, the architectural consultant thought he’d found an ideal piece of land overlooking Lake Erie to design and build his dream home. There were scenic bike rides outside his door, a dock nearby for a sailboat, and a secondary house he could rent out to help with costs.

He had no inkling his picture-perfect life in Leamington, Ont., would be upended by a bad smell in his neighbour’s basement, first detected about 15 years ago.

The source of the odour was eventually traced to a pipe buried 1.5 metres in the yard of his rental property. When a backhoe operator uncovered it in 2017, the pipe was hissing and emitting small amounts of methane and hydrogen sulphide (H2S), which at low levels smells like rotten eggs.

Ever since, Mr. Cockerham has been locked in a battle with the provincial government over the origin of the pipe and what should be done about it. It’s a dispute that has cost him at least $50,000 in bills for excavation work, engineering studies, consultant fees, and legal costs.

“This has completely ruined my retirement. They keep coming back and saying I’m creating a hazard, and I have to solve it. That’s just ridiculous,” he said.

Mr. Cockerham’s story illustrates a broader problem across Southwestern Ontario with old oil, gas and water wells – one that is being largely borne by property owners. Many of these wells and associated pipes were abandoned more than five decades ago, prior to proper record-keeping and under lesser environmental standards. Some are now leaking toxic gases that are also potentially explosive, as witnessed in the nearby town of Wheatley in 2021, when an ongoing leak of methane and H2S triggered a blast that devastated the downtown and injured about 20 people.

A Globe investigation published last year revealed municipal officials repeatedly asked the province to investigate the source of the gas leaks, stressing the problem was beyond their resources and expertise. But the province was reluctant to deal with the issue, contending it wasn’t responsible.

The Ontario government has set aside between $1-million and $3-million a year to plug high-risk wells whose original owners are no longer in the picture. That allows for the plugging of about 20 wells annually – about half the number recommended by a 2004 internal government report obtained by The Globe last year.

Mr. Cockerham doesn’t qualify for provincial money because the Ministry of Environment has declared that the pipe on his property was originally part of a water well drilled in 1954. There is no financial assistance offered to property owners for old water wells that can also emit dangerous gases.

Jim McIntosh, an engineer Mr. Cockerham hired to investigate the issue, believes the leak might be connected to an old oil or gas well instead. In addition to the water well cited by the environment ministry, provincial records show oil and gas wells were drilled close to Mr. Cockerham’s yard, says Mr. McIntosh, a 30-year veteran of the oil and gas drilling industry.

“Right now no one has a clue” what type of well Mr. Cockerham’s pipe was originally from, Mr. McIntosh said.

Provincial records, the engineer says, show that gas wells were drilled all along Robson Road – the road Mr. Cockerham lives on – with some dating as far back as the 1890s. The government should study the neighbourhood as a whole to get clear answers on the source of Mr. Cockerham’s leak and others that have occurred in the area, he believes.

In 2016, a homeowner close to Mr. Cockerham’s property was digging beside his house and hit a well, causing a hydrogen sulphide leak and a local state of emergency. Two homes were evacuated for four months while the well was capped by the province.

Provincial officials “followed the standard approach” to determine that Mr. Cockerham’s pipe is a water well based on factors including the size of the pipe, “other infrastructure connected for a potential gas well, and similar properties with nearby water wells,” according to Natural Resources spokesperson Richard Mullin.

In order to deal with the leak, the Ministry of Environment ordered Mr. Cockerham in April, 2021, to bring a large drilling rig into his yard to drill down in case the old pipe is broken or corroded and cap it with cement, a process his consulting engineer Mr. McIntosh says could “dramatically increase” the amount of gas being released, and create an explosion risk in the neighbourhood.

Mr. Cockerham says drillers who were consulted “wouldn’t touch the job” after they were told methane or H2S were involved, because of the danger of drilling so close to homes.

“They’re trying to hand me a hand grenade and telling me to throw it in my neighbours’ yards. I won’t do it,” he said.

Instead of re-drilling the well, Mr. McIntosh and Mr. Cockerham have instead proposed to deal with the small amount of sputtering gas by venting it from a hose running to the top of a television antenna tower, an idea rejected by the ministry as unsafe.

The Ministry of Environment believes the job, as outlined in its order, can be done safely. Officials “will ensure that any work undertaken is completed in a manner that is safe for those living in the area and will reduce risks to the environment,” spokesperson Lindsay Davidson said in an e-mail.

Parties who are issued an environmental order have the right to request a hearing to a provincial tribunal, Mr. Davidson explains, but Mr. Cockerham says his lawyer estimates that could cost up to $100,000. “How on earth am I supposed to afford that?” he asked.

Mr. Davidson says the ministry is committed to working with Mr. Cockerham and his consultants to find a resolution.

Ministry officials have recently asked for another meeting with Mr. Cockerham. He says he will only meet with them after the final report on the Wheatley explosion is completed and released to the public. He hopes the report’s recommendations will force the province to examine the abandoned wells situation across the Leamington and Wheatley area.

In November, Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk concluded that the province is doing too little to address the risks posed by inactive oil and gas wells. Her audit found that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is inspecting too few wells and does not know whether it is focusing on the riskiest ones.

For Mr. Cockerham, the future of his retirement is now filled with worry. Over the years he has worked to improve his rental property, but he now fears it may be valueless because of the well, and the government could seize the property to pay for drilling costs.

“The ministry keeps coming back and telling me I am creating a hazard, that this is poison gas. So why are they letting a situation like that go on for seven years? If it’s really hazardous they should be taking responsibility instead of putting it on my shoulders,” he said.