Explosion probe in Wheatley is complete, all wells plugged

Exposed casing stub in Wheatley (Via Municipality of Chatham-Kent)

The Director of Investigations with the Ontario Fire Marshal has confirmed that Methane Hydrogen Sulfide gas (H2S) caused the massive explosion in downtown Wheatley last summer.

Nancy MacDonald-Duncan led-off a town hall at the Wheatley Arena with the news Thursday evening, saying the gas came up through basement drains at 15 Erie Street North, the old Pogue Pub, on August 26, 2021 and was ignited by an appliance.

Sean McFarland with Golder and Associates, the consultant tasked with finding what caused the blast and the source of the gas, said the investigation is complete, all three wells in question have been successfully plugged, and the final well is almost capped. McFarland said the gas came from the shallow bedrock aquifer through an old underground water well below The Pogue and into the basement.

“The plugging looks like it was done effectively and we haven’t had any gas detected at the surface with our monitoring following the plugging,” said McFarland.

A final report from Golder is expected mid-fall (October-November).

The Municipality of Chatham-Kent told residents the air monitoring will continue for at least the next six months and perhaps will be permanent pending municipal approval after the final report. Officials said gas has not been detected lately, but former Chief Administrative Officer Don Shropshire, who continues handling the Wheatley explosion file, emphasized once again that nobody can guarantee the area will ever be 100 per cent safe.

The municipality is also pointing residents to the Insurance Bureau of Canada if they’re having issues with their insurance and to get legal advice to protect themselves. Homeowners who still need structural assessments will get a call to set up an appointment, according to Acting General Manager of Infrastructure and Engineering Services Ryan Brown.

Shropshire said current evacuees may not return home for several months, but the evacuation zone should be reduced again in the coming weeks.

“This is far from over and we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be with you to try and provide that on-going support until we can address the outstanding issues,” said Shropshire.

One resident expressed his concern that insurance premiums will go through the roof because of the uncertainty of another gas leak or blast in the area, if the insurance companies will insure anything at all.

A business owner said he didn’t learn anything and accused the municipality of glossing over the human impact. He also said there’s no breakdown of the timeline to give evacuees a better idea of when the work phases to restore the downtown will be done.

One woman told officials she still can’t be happy about the latest updates because her “world is still upside down”. She criticized officials for too much political jargon and not enough useful information, saying she is a “depleted person” because of the explosion’s aftermath. She said work on her home can’t start until at least January and her mortgage hasn’t stopped.

Jennifer Barton, assistant deputy minister for Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, said the province is now considering whether or not to extend housing support programs into 2023. The current programs end December 31, 2022.

A few hydrogen sulfide leaks took place at the site around 15 Erie Street North starting in June of 2021 before a blast on August 26, 2021 damaged a few buildings and injured several people.