It has been more than a year since buildings in downtown Wheatley, Ont., exploded near an old gas well, but it will still be months before everyone in the town will be able to return to their homes and businesses.
A meeting Thursday night to update residents on next steps for the small community, about an hour southeast of Windsor, left many frustrated. They questioned why the recovery effort is taking so long and why there remains no firm timeline for the town to regain some sense of normality.
And the Ontario government doesn’t yet have a plan to deal with thousands of abandoned wells that litter parts of the province, which experts say are disasters waiting to happen.
The explosion in Wheatley on Aug. 26, 2021, destroyed two buildings, injured 20 people and has left dozens barred from their homes for more than a year, including Stephanie Charbonneau.
She and her family have no idea when it will be possible to return home – a complaint shared by many evacuated residents and business owners at the meeting.
While contractors continue to plug the wells and repair infrastructure, she said, her situation – and that of dozens like her – remains unchanged. She also feels that helping locals is no longer the focus of government.
“When the work is finished and the municipality and the province pull out, there’s nobody that’s going to remember us,” she said in an interview. “There’s nobody that’s going to care any more.”
On Thursday, Nancy Macdonald-Duncan, the Office of the Fire Marshal’s director of fire investigation services, confirmed the cause of the blast. She said it was the result of an explosive combination of methane and hydrogen sulfide leaking from a well through one or all three floor drains into the basement of a former Irish pub called the Pogue. One of the appliances in the basement then ignited the gas.
A separate investigation by Golder Associates, a consultant hired to figure out how gas migrated from where it originated to the former Pogue pub, indicated that two of the wells by the site of the explosion were water wells through which gas had leaked. A provincial map of petroleum wells, however, had listed them as gas wells, underscoring the lack of data on old wells in Ontario.
A recent Globe and Mail investigation revealed that experts and government engineers have warned for years that Ontario needs to be more proactive in hunting down its potentially problematic orphan gas wells, some of which date from the 19th century and many of which may not have been properly plugged.
In a recent interview with The Globe, the province’s new Natural Resources and Forestry Minister, Graydon Smith, said he expected the third of three wells found near the site of the Wheatley explosion will be plugged as early as the end of September.
The government has said that it is developing a plan to deal with abandoned oil and gas wells, but Mr. Smith would not say what broader changes were under consideration. He said the government was awaiting a final report from its engineering consultants working at the Wheatley site.
But more than a year after the explosion, the province has dedicated no new resources nor personnel to tracking down or plugging thousands of similar wells, scattered across mostly Southwestern Ontario, that experts warn could cause another blast.
Nor has it committed to any other changes to the way it responds when a leaking well is discovered – situations that in Ontario, unlike in other provinces, are largely left up to local municipalities or landowners to deal with.
Mr. Smith did suggest that the province could look at increasing the $2-million to $3-million it spends a year capping potentially dangerous problem wells, which amounts to dealing with about 20 sites annually. But for now, he said, staff were trying to prioritize the most potentially dangerous sites to address them first.
The minister also defended his department’s response to the initial gas leaks in Wheatley. E-mails and internal documents obtained by The Globe via freedom of information legislation showed that local officials had to make repeated requests for more help in the face of the first gas leak in June, 2021.
Mr. Smith said the incident “wasn’t a situation that could be easily foreseen.”
“But when it did become apparent that there could be something significant … we provided the resources and the government has provided the backup for the people.”
The minister also pointed to the $1.7-billion that the federal government committed in 2020 to clean up orphan wells in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C., and said Ontario should receive similar funding.
His predecessors have previously raised the issue with Ottawa, to no avail. And Mr. Smith, in an Aug. 24 letter sent to federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, renewed what he called Ontario’s “urgent” requests for a “fair share” of the funding, calling Ottawa’s help “essential” and warning that orphan wells could pose “serious environmental and safety risks.”
Asked why the province was waiting on funding from Ottawa for something entirely within its own jurisdiction, Mr. Smith said it was “a matter of fairness and equity that money should be distributed.”
In an e-mailed statement, Anthony Ertl, a spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada, said the department was reviewing the letter. He said the “one-off” federal money was part of Ottawa’s COVID-19 economic response plan and that provinces receiving it “were also required to strengthen their regulatory regimes to reduce the future prospect of new orphan wells.”
Interim Ontario NDP Leader Peter Tabuns said the provincial government should not be dragging its heels on orphan wells while begging Ottawa for funding, given Ontario’s recent moves to forgo revenue from, for example, its cancellation of car licence-plate renewal fees, worth about $1-billion a year.
“The government can’t simply say, ‘I’m waiting for a cheque from the federal government,’ ” Mr. Tabuns said on Thursday at Queen’s Park. “They need to act.”
In August 2021 the centre of downtown Wheatley, Ontario, exploded, injuring 20 people, and destroying its downtown core. It was during the third hydrogen sulphide leak in as many months. It never should have exploded. See the full investigation at tgam.ca/WheatleyExplosion
The Globe and Mail