The time-bomb town Ontario didn’t defuse
Globe & Mail

Before its downtown core – built on the remains of old gas wells – exploded last summer, Wheatley, Ont., warned the province repeatedly about dangerous leaks. The Globe reveals how inaction led to disaster

The first sign that something was wrong in Wheatley, Ont., came via a call to 911 on June 2, 2021, at 2:22 p.m. Building owner Whit Thiele had discovered a gas leak.

Mr. Thiele had bought 15 Erie St. North in 2016 and turned it into a popular local pub called The Pogue, but the business had struggled during the pandemic and eventually closed.

“From time to time there would be odours” in the building, but he figured it was just an old drain outside.

The smell in early June was different. It was pungent, “like very strong, rotten eggs.” Mr. Thiele called a friend who was a contractor and they went into the basement to investigate. There they heard a low hiss and a deep rumbling from beneath the building before water and sludgy mud started bubbling up through every nook and cranny.

They both started to feel woozy from the gas, and got outside to call 911. Puddles on a neighbouring property were “bubbling like champagne,” Mr. Thiele recalled.

Later that day the hazmat team from Windsor – the nearest specialist fire crew trained to deal with gas leaks – retrieved gas readings from the doorway of The Pogue, discovering high levels of hydrogen sulphide (H2S), also known as sour gas. The noxious substance irritates eyes and airways, and can cause headaches, dizziness and lungs to fill with fluid at higher concentrations - along with a loss of smell, which can trick people into thinking the deadly and explosive threat is gone.

The peak H2S measurement contained within the gas cloud that day was 134.2 parts per million by volume – well beyond the 100 ppm deemed “immediately dangerous to life and health” by the U.S.-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The lower explosive limit (LEL) was at 100 per cent, which means the gas cloud could have exploded with a single spark.

Firefighters also checked gas levels in the nearby Legion and MJ’s Pizza, evacuating dozens of homes and businesses out of caution. Crews stayed on-scene all night to check gas readings every half-hour.

The next morning, the mystery of the gas leak still unsolved, Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff declared a state of emergency in the small southwestern Ontario town of about 3,000 residents, asking the public to avoid the area because it posed a “danger that could result in serious harm” and “substantial damage to property.”

He and other municipal officials contacted the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources, asking for help to determine the source of the gas. The levels of gas dropped to zero two days later. Although the source remained a mystery, on June 19, the evacuation order was lifted and displaced residents and business owners were allowed to return.

But then, almost three months later, Mr. Canniff’s dire warning came to pass. On Aug. 26 at 6:13 p.m., an explosion flattened The Pogue, destroying a neighbouring building and injuring about 20 people. Given the multiple early warning signs – another evacuation in July followed the first – it was a nearly deadly catastrophe that could have been avoided.

Municipal and provincial government documents and e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail through freedom-of-information legislation reveal that the Municipality of Chatham-Kent repeatedly asked the Ontario government to step in and investigate the source of the toxic leaks, stressing the problem was beyond their resources and expertise. But the province was reluctant to deal with the issue, putting the onus on Chatham-Kent, which governs Wheatley and dozens of other mostly rural communities, and on the owner of the building.

The municipality was told that the province’s petroleum compliance inspectors could offer “commentary but not advice,” because a government lawyer had advised them against providing guidance, according to the documents. The limited action frustrated municipal officials.

The fact that The Pogue exploded after two high-level gas leaks could well boil down to a failure in oversight, due diligence and duty of care by the province, said Bill Timbers, an engineer and risk management consultant in Alberta. Mr. Timbers told The Globe the concentrations of H2S found on June 2 were “absolutely unacceptable and dangerous,” even for trained hazardous chemical workers with specialized protective equipment. And it would have been “10 times worse for members of the public” who encountered the gas with no gear.

“Why didn’t they jump on it right away?” he said. “I mean the proof of the pudding, as they say, is the place blew up. So clearly it was dangerous.”

Ontario was once the heart of Canada’s oil and gas sector. North America’s first oil wells were drilled here in 1858. But many of them were never properly plugged to prevent gas from escaping. There are close to 26,700 oil and gas wells on record, more than half of them abandoned, many decades ago, a Globe analysis shows. The vast majority of the wells – around 23,800 – are in the province’s southwest. Approximately 6,000 wells have an unknown status, which means the province doesn’t have records for them or the records are incomplete.

Ontario’s oversight of old hydrocarbon wells is weaker than in Western Canada. Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan all have stronger rules for managing and monitoring high-risk wells, particularly when potentially deadly sour gas is present. The Western provinces also have millions of dollars collected from the oil and gas industry to plug orphaned wells and address leaks and problems that may surface over the years.

Experts say another Wheatley is all but assured in the region. It’s just a matter of time. And as the Municipality of Chatham-Kent and the people of Wheatley continue to grapple with what happened last August and wait for an investigation on the source of the leaks to wrap up, there are ever-louder calls for the provincial government to do more to prevent another explosion here, and elsewhere in Ontario.

The view down Erie Street, looking north toward downtown, in Wheatley, a town of about 3,000 people.

Julius, 11, scoots past sister Nely at their house around the corner from The Pogue. Julius, who was outside with his siblings when the explosion hit, said it felt as if ‘the world went in and then out again.’ The family returned to the house in May, finding only a little damage.A ‘Wheatley strong’ sign hangs in the window of a house on Foster Street. Some Wheatley residents are still waiting to move back to their houses, which weren’t winterized before the blast and have to be cleared of mould and water damage that built up in their absence.

The frustrating response from the province began immediately after the incident in early June. Chatham-Kent’s director of public works, Ryan Brown, recalled a bewildering few days following that leak.

Inspectors from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) had arrived in town at around 8 p.m. with files about some old gas wells in the area. It appeared there were a number of wells near 15 Erie St. that were drilled in 1897 and had been plugged back in the 1960s, but there was little information to explain the sudden elevation in gas levels.

“Everybody was scratching their heads, thinking, ‘What is going on here and why today? What’s different today than the past 100 years?’” Mr. Brown said in an interview.

Municipal Fire Chief Chris Case repeatedly asked for assistance with the potentially volatile situation from numerous provincial agencies – the MNRF, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Municipal Affairs, the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre – but was in each case told it was beyond their scope and not their responsibility, according to an occupational health and safety report of the incident that catalogued Mr. Case’s actions and concerns.

Their refusals to take greater action are also documented in e-mails between Chatham-Kent staff and the provincial government. On June 12, a petroleum compliance supervisor with the MNRF told Chatham-Kent that the municipality should continue to lean on the Ontario Petroleum Institute, an industry group, academia and other experts for support. At a June 17 call between Mr. Case and representatives of several ministries, the fire chief was told the gas leak was not the provincial government’s responsibility “unless the chief could prove that the gas was coming from a gas well,” the occupational health and safety report states.

HSE Integrated, an industrial health and safety expert, was contracted to monitor gas levels at The Pogue and a nearby building at a cost of around $20,000 per week – a service the province paid for.

On July 19 at 8:11 a.m., those gas monitors sent an alarm to Mr. Thiele. “Explosive limits” of H2S had been detected on all three levels of the building. He once again called 911.

Within hours, more than 20 nearby homes and 13 commercial properties were evacuated. At 1:10 p.m. that afternoon, the Windsor hazmat team entered the upper apartment of The Pogue. They backed out immediately when multiple alarms sounded on their gas monitor.

That morning, Chief Case contacted the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre (PEOC) with a dire warning: “We have a naturally occurring hazardous materials incident beyond the capabilities of the Chatham-Kent Fire Service and I am requesting assistance to protect life and property.”

‘It’s another gas leak’: Whit Thiele calls Chatham-Kent 911 again.

Darrin Canniff is mayor of Chatham-Kent, the municipality Wheatley is a part of.

Mayor Canniff declared a second state of emergency the next day. He scaled it back to cover just 15 Erie St. on July 22, with gas readings once again back to zero.

This time, the hazmat team gathered gas samples for testing and they were sent to labs in Mississauga and Calgary and at the University of Windsor. Fire Chief Case offered them to several provincial ministries, too, but none took him up on his offer.

Mr. Brown, the director of public works, updated municipal officials on the testing of the gas samples in an e-mail on July 22. He told them the results were consistent with a thermogenic gas produced below the surface. He also suggested sending the findings to the PEOC, the Ministry of Environment and the MNRF. “Consider sending MNRF with a message that we consider the MNRF now responsible for the site.”

The municipality’s persistent frustrations drew a response from Sharon Rew, then-acting assistant deputy minister at the Ministry of Natural Resources, on July 29. She told Chatham-Kent that the ministry had established a multi-department project team to provide technical expertise and advice to the municipality “while also considering other avenues of assistance.”

The province had also entered into discussions with Golder Associates, a consulting firm, to lead a technical investigation into the cause of the Wheatley gas leaks. Golder did not return requests for an interview, but a report from the firm provided to Chatham-Kent on Aug. 19 laid out a series of recommendations for the municipality and the building owner, including real-time monitoring of H2S and methane, assessing and eliminating combustion sources in the basement, and making sure portable gas detectors were tested each day.

It also recommended the local fire department provide input on and ultimately approve a hazard-response plan for the site, should gas be detected again. That suggestion worried Mr. Case. He thought it was beyond the scope of the Ontario fire code. The Office of the Fire Marshal confirmed that his hunch was correct and urged him not to approve the Golder recommendations, according to his occupational report. The Golder report, commissioned by the province, did not touch on the Ontario government’s responsibility or direct any recommendations its way.

The morning before the explosion, Chatham-Kent’s chief administrative officer Don Shropshire e-mailed various MNRF officials, asking what steps the ministry was taking to determine the source of the gas – an issue that was not addressed in the first Golder report. “We understood that Golder was going to be preparing a pathway analysis plan for this purpose. Has this work begun?” he asked. There was no answer.

At 5:07 p.m. on Aug. 26, readings showed gases were more than halfway toward their lower explosive limit (LEL). At 5:12 p.m., Chatham-Kent’s director of engineering and transportation infrastructure, Chris Thibert, e-mailed MNRF officials. “All alarms are going off right now at 15 Erie St. N,” he said, adding that gas levels were dangerously high and 911 had been called.

“Is there anything we should be doing or recommendations from the MNRF or your consultant Golder on how to proceed?” he asked. Alain Belanger, manager of the Ministry’s Petroleum Operations Section, replied a few minutes later that he would reach out to Golder and see if there was any more information they needed.

When the LEL readings passed 100 per cent at 5:14 p.m., the gas was one spark away from igniting.

At 6:13 p.m., The Pogue exploded.

The force of the blast obliterated 15 Erie St., and blew the windows and air conditioners out of nearby buildings. It was felt as far as three kilometres away by folks fishing on Lake Erie.

Volunteer firefighter Daniel (Bubba) Jones was on site to evacuate the area when the explosion occurred.

He felt it before he heard it; a massive percussion.

“It’s just like, BWOOOF,” he recalled of the explosion, which sucked the breath from his chest.

After a few milliseconds of eerie silence, the sound slammed his ears.

Mr. Jones’ thoughts immediately flew to the firefighters and residents who had been standing on the street. He bolted toward them through a cloud of dust and wreckage, barely able to see. All around him he could hear glass smashing and debris hitting the ground.

He was unharmed, but he saw the assistant municipal fire chief John Praill staggering down the sidewalk, his elbow peeled from glass and wood shrapnel, looking “like he got shot with a shotgun about 10 times.” He saw a municipal employee with wood sticking through his boot and ankle. His own ribs hurt for three days from the force of the explosion. In all, about 20 people were injured in the blast. Without the evacuation, people would have certainly died.

“Had we not closed the street? I don’t know how many dead. Just sitting at a red light in the car – two, three people. Somebody walking their dog. You know what I mean?” Mr. Jones reflected. “Everything, I don’t know, it lined up to nobody dying just by milliseconds.”

‘Hey, there was just an explosion here in Wheatley’: Listen to residents' 911 calls about the blast.

The wake of the blast and the three-block evacuation zone implemented by the municipality shuttered almost all businesses downtown, decimating commerce in the community. Displaced residents scrambled to find housing in nearby towns. On top of the disruption, many residents and business owners told The Globe about challenges they faced trying to settle insurance claims when the ongoing evacuation order prevented adjusters from entering buildings to assess the damage.

By the end of 2021, Chatham-Kent had spent close to $5.6-million on its emergency response in the town, according to municipal figures tabled earlier this year. In February, the province signed an agreement with the municipality agreeing to cover up to $2-million in expenses related to the Wheatley emergency. The province bumped that up to $5.9-million at the start of May.

Premier Doug Ford toured Wheatley not long after the explosion. But months later, residents voiced their frustration that the source of the gas leaks still hadn’t been found.

“If this was in Etobicoke, this would not be happening. But we’re sort of the end of Kent county, and here we are,” Barb Carson said on a sunny day last fall, standing outside her home at the edge of the evacuation zone. (Mr. Ford lives in Etobicoke, a suburb in Toronto.)

Barb Carson stands outside the evacuation zone, with her home in the background.

Her sentiment was shared by many Wheatley residents who spoke with The Globe, including Hilary Hyatt, who owned Lil Hil’s Coffee Shop – one of many downtown businesses in the evacuation zone.

After the first two gas leaks and resulting states of emergency, she felt someone in government should have done more to deal with the danger. Post-explosion, her biggest beef was with different levels of government passing the buck when it came to who is ultimately responsible.

“Somebody needs to help us and somebody needs to fix it,” she said. “We want to make sure that this never happens again.”

Last year’s blast wasn’t the first to destroy a chunk of Wheatley’s picturesque downtown. Early in the morning of Jan. 15, 1936, a “terrific explosion” destroyed what was known as the Odd Fellow’s Block on the corner of Erie and Elm Streets – mere steps from the site of last year’s explosion. The two-storey building housed the post office, village council chambers, a funeral home and a lodge.

An article in the Toronto Daily Star newspaper of the day described fire shooting up 50 feet with a “deafening roar,” shattering the building, smashing the windows of houses and hurling wreckage. It injured two women who were returning from a party when a “hail of splintered wood and broken bricks flew all about them.”

And in June 1993, records obtained by The Globe from the Ontario’s Oil, Gas and Salt Resources Library show that there were concerns about leaks at 37 Erie St. N., which is a few doors down from The Pogue. A gas sample test was conducted by Union Gas Limited and submitted to MNRF. A note in the analysis said “we are most likely dealing with a thermogenic/petrogenic natural gas” – a deep source of gas, which suggests that it was coming from a gas well or a crack deep in the earth.

The modern-day explosion site in Wheatley continues to experience so-called burps; every four to six weeks, for a few hours, elevated levels of H2S and methane belch from the earth. But there are still no concrete answers about what exactly caused The Pogue to blow last August.

The Office of the Fire Marshal is in charge of the investigation, and Mr. Brown with Chatham-Kent expects to see the report by the end of the year.

There are three old gas wells in close proximity to 15 Erie St., and Mr. Brown thinks it’s “highly likely” that the final report will point to one of them as the source of the blast. One of them – the so-called Tait well near the centre of Wheatley’s municipal lot – has been capped with a cement plug up to the bedrock surface as part of recent reclamation activity. But work on the other two, including the one closest to the explosion site, was delayed earlier this year. “The process of plugging a gas well is complex,” the municipality noted in an update to residents.

Work was paused at the site after another gas leak on July 6, after which officials decided to install a pressure relief well before proceeding with further remediation. That work resumed Aug. 2. The Wheatley Hotel Inc. is listed as the operator of the well, as it’s on their land. It was plugged in 1969, but there is no information in Ontario’s well database about who drilled it.

Some Wheatley residents who spent months out of their homes are now back, trying to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives. Others, whose homes weren’t winterized, remain in temporary accommodations while their houses are gutted of water damage and mould.

Downtown Wheatley remains quieter than usual. Some evacuated businesses are open again – the Circle K convenience store and gas station, the Original Guys pizza joint – but many remain shuttered, waiting for repairs or inspections.

Some residents told The Globe they’re worried about another explosion. Many were spooked by a significant gas leak last month, including Jim Dobson, who runs Dobson Woodworking on Talbot Street, just south of the explosion.

“I’m smelling gas still. I just want to know, is it safe to be here?” he said. “Nobody has come in here and stood here and said, ‘Here’s what’s going on, here’s what needs to be done.’ "

While Mr. Case, the fire chief, declined to be interviewed for this story, he said in an e-mail to The Globe that his firefighters showed “humbling dedication and commitment” to protect the community while municipal and provincial governments debated how to deal with the situation.

Don Shropshire, Chatham-Kent’s chief administrative officer at the time of the explosion, was supposed to retire, but has stayed on to oversee the ongoing response to the incident. He said in a recent interview that the provincial response in the early days of the Wheatley leaks needs to be reviewed, because containing and tracing a massive gas leak is simply beyond a local municipality’s capability. He also thinks the province needs to have special teams of experts ready to take over if a similar incident occurs.

“This kind of event, this is not like a house fire, where you have people trained to do this,” Mr. Shropshire said. “This is something where there is a higher level of expertise required,” he added, noting the province’s support for the municipality improved after the second leak.

The office of Minister of Natural Resources Greg Rickford declined to make him available for an interview. In an e-mailed statement, ministry spokeswoman Anita Tamrazi did not directly address questions on Mr. Case’s concerns about the province’s initial response, as laid out in his occupational health and safety report, but said it is up to municipalities to maintain emergency management plans and to respond to emergencies in their areas.

Ms. Tamrazi said the ministry has been working with Chatham-Kent to provide 24-hour gas monitoring and hired consultants to seek the source of the gas leak. It is also providing grants to help local business recover and aid to residents with housing and other emergency costs.

The Ontario government says that under its Oil, Gas, and Salt Resources Act, a licence holder or operator of a well is responsible for plugging it. If one cannot be found, the responsibility falls to the landowner. The legislation also gives the government the power to inspect sites and issue cleanup orders. Like many landowners, however, the municipality has no resources to deal with leaking wells.

Interim Ontario NDP Leader Peter Tabuns said the revelations in the occupational health and safety report are “staggering” and show that the Ontario government was asleep at the switch in the early months of the Wheatley incident. He also called it irresponsible to deem gas leaks like this the sole responsibility of local municipalities.

“It’s completely irresponsible. It’s a dereliction of duty. The provincial government has a responsibility to protect the people of Ontario from hazards, generally, and in particular, this kind of hazard,” Mr. Tabuns said.

Mayor Canniff wants to see a provincial plan – along with some provincial and federal dollars – to help clean up orphaned wells that litter the region, some of them potential ticking time bombs. He has joined forces with other mayors in southwestern Ontario to push for provincial guidelines about what to do in the case of another major gas leak.

“Someone from the province should be appearing immediately and saying, ‘Okay, here’s what you need to do.’ Municipalities don’t have that skill set,” he said.

“They need a response because it’s not a matter of if, it’s when the next [explosion] happens.”


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