WHEATLEY, Ontario – The power is off. Guards are seated in cars on every corner. Hundreds of people are out of their homes, some without access to their clothes or personal effects.
And officials are working frantically to unravel the dark mystery of what exactly caused a gas explosion last August in Wheatley, Ont. – and how to prevent another explosion from happening.
More than four months after the explosion shut down Wheatley town center and injured 20 of the town’s 2,900 residents, authorities still do not know where the gas leak came from or why it happened.
Residents and local authorities are examining the risks associated with the town’s history as a 19th-century gas well site, remnants of the region’s oil and gas industry. Many are now wondering whether the city center, which was officially recognized in 1865, should be abandoned for good.
“It’s always one of those really surreal things where you tell people that, yes, the city has exploded,” said Stéphanie Charbonneau, a teacher who was forced to flee her home with her family. “Who knows what’s going to happen at the end of all of this? What will Wheatley look like?
In the 1890s, gas wells were dug to provide heat and electricity to homes and businesses in and around Wheatley, which is in southwestern Ontario on Lake Erie. Over time, the wells became obsolete and buildings were built directly on them; the locations of the wells were little or not documented.
Prior to the explosion, Wheatley was best known for its Lake Erie fishing; a shipyard; and a provincial park by the lake. Few in the community were aware of the gas wells or of the fact that an explosion had razed a meeting room in 1936. Stories of gas leaks from the town’s older residents and newspaper accounts from Older explosions don’t start circulating until after the August explosion.
The first sign of trouble came on June 2, when Whit Thiele, a local business owner, went to investigate a foul odor in the basement of a downtown commercial building he owned. There he saw water flowing through cracks in the foundation and through a drain into the ground before forming into a bubbly mass.
Mr. Thiele felt ill, became dizzy and had to be resuscitated by firefighters who evacuated the area surrounding the office.
Sensors were then installed and quickly began to detect dangerous gases, prompting firefighters to evacuate the area around the building twice over the summer.
Almost three months later, on August 26, Steve Ingram, the president of the local shipyard, and his wife, Barb Carson, were getting ready for dinner at the house when firefighters began to tape an evacuation area again due to gas leak.
“Well, here we go,” Mr. Ingram recalls telling his wife that evening. “Sooner or later this place is going to explode.”
Suddenly, the sound of the explosion filled the air. Windows in the Ingram’s house bent and then shattered outward, miraculously without shattering, as the blast wave knocked their belongings throughout the house. As insulation and other building materials began to drift from the sky, the couple grabbed their phones and iPads and fled wearing only T-shirts and shorts.
It was Mr. Thiele’s building that had exploded, destroying an adjacent pizzeria and laundromat as well as a newly opened motel and bar. A surveillance camera across the street captured how a tongue of orange flame erupted from the building, then was sucked inside before detonating the buildings in the sky.
Local authorities quickly opened an investigation. Using ground-penetrating radar, they discovered the site of an old well under a paved parking lot behind the site of the blast. Closer to the site, the ground continued to emit gas about every 40 days, suggesting the source of the gas leak and raising fears of another explosion as well.
But further investigation seemed to raise more questions than answers.
Don Shropshire, executive director of Chatham-Kent, the regional municipality that governs Wheatley, said recent excavation work at the blast site uncovered a second old gas well that could leak. Ontario officials said there may be a third old well still hidden somewhere downtown.
“I am reasonably confident that they will find the source of the gas,” Mr Shropshire said. “Whether that can be mitigated or not is an entirely different question. “
While experts from Alberta, the capital of Canada’s oil and gas industry, were recruited to assess how and why the gas surfaced, the threat of another explosion slowed their progress.
Around 300 people are still not allowed to return home and 38 of Wheatley’s businesses remain closed. There is no estimate for when, or if, everyone will be allowed to return home permanently – or if the destroyed buildings can even be rebuilt. Mr Shropshire said it may prove impossible to safely reopen the area around the blast.
Wheatley residents have gone from shock to dismay and anger that nothing has been done to solve the mystery of the explosion or to start work on repairs. The province has pledged to provide aid of about $ 3.96 million, but several store owners have said they haven’t seen any of the money yet. They think individual payments will be way below what they need to restart their business.
“I’m trying to keep my anger at a level,” said Mr. Ingram, who was only allowed to return home once, for an hour in early December, to collect winter clothes. He added, “I can’t even come down and look at my house because my wife is bursting into tears.”
At a heated public meeting in November, local officials acknowledged the frustration and anger. But they also highlighted the complexity of the problem and said it will take time to resolve it.
“I don’t want anyone guessing what the problem is, just throw some concrete on it and in 60 years my grandchildren who might be living in Wheatley will have the same problem again,” said City Council member Melissa Harrigan. during a meeting. “I’m so sorry this is disrupting your lives in so many ways that I can’t imagine, really can’t, but I can say we are trying.”
It is not clear who bears the responsibility for the cost of all of this. The companies that drilled the wells are long gone. Lawyers representing Wheatley residents are said to soon be asking a court to approve a class action lawsuit against the municipality, which owns the parking lot covering one of the pits.
The custom carpentry and gift shop that Tracey Declerck owns with her daughter is still closed and full of merchandise, directly across from the blast site. “We are little people, it is my livelihood there,” Declerck said in December as she was blown by the wind off Lake Erie. “Am I supposed to look for another job until they figure this out?” “
Ms Declerck said she feared the explosion had left her store building in disrepair. Like many people in Wheatley, she is skeptical about the possibility of finding a permanent solution to the gas leak.
Mr Thiele, the owner of the business, said he believes commercial insurance may become unaffordable in the city and public confidence will be difficult, if not impossible, to restore.
“I can’t imagine anyone building a building there and feeling safe,” he said.