Wheatley gas leak's source still unknown

The ongoing state of emergency in Wheatley because of a toxic gas leak is now a good news, bad news situation, says Chatham-Kent’s top administrator.

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The ongoing state of emergency in Wheatley because of a toxic gas leak is now a good news, bad news situation, Chatham-Kent’s top administrator says.

The good news, said Don Shropshire, is hydrogen sulphide has not been detected this week by firefighters who remain at the scene.

The bad news is officials “still have been unable to identify the location of the gases and why it stopped or whether it could come back,” he said on a conference call with media Thursday.

“We’re in a bit of a difficult position not knowing whether it’s safe to allow people to go back into the space.”

Twenty-seven people were evacuated from their homes in the immediate aftermath of the discovery. The municipality is caring for four families while the other residents found housing on their own.

The municipality is developing a plan to get back to normal “in a very measured, deliberate way,” Shropshire said.

The leak was first detected June 2 in a building at 16 Erie St. N. That block remains cordoned off.

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A state of emergency was declared June 3.

A provincial hazardous materials team took gas readings June 4 and found “negligible” levels, Shropshire said.

“Our gas detectors aren’t as sensitive as the provincial equipment, but we’ve had no gas readings since that time period,” he said.

Firefighters continue to monitor the site, take gas readings and ensure the area is safe. They’ve been there non-stop since the leak was reported.

“It is obviously draining on our volunteer firefighters who are providing 24-7 cover and having to maintain their jobs, home life, etc. … Our engineering department continues to work with local and provincial partners to find the source of the gas and seek a resolution that will allow people back to their homes and businesses,” Chatham-Kent fire Chief Chris Case said to the Daily News.

“I cannot imagine the stresses this is causing and we are grateful for their co-operation. The level of support offered to the crews on the group has been exceptional.”

The evacuation zone was put in place on the advice of the provincial hazmat team, Case said, so local officials can’t make changes to that zone until they’re told the risk has been managed.

“It’s very complex, but for the folks who are in town that have been asked to leave their homes and close their businesses, that’s not very settling,” Shropshire said. “We need to find a way to get to the solution.

“Everybody’s thinking that the municipality is the one that’s in charge. We have certainly a role to play, but it is still not clear what the responsibilities (are) of the other stakeholders, private property owners, as well as the province.

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“We want to get everybody to the table to work together on the solution. Then we’ll worry about who’s going to pay for it in due course. Let’s get the problem solved.”

Hydrogen sulphide is “highly toxic and explosive in certain concentrations,” Case said in a statement this week. “We cannot stress highly enough the risk that exists with this gas potentially being released in an uncontrolled manner into the atmosphere. Our actions to date have been to protect our local community.”

The municipality doesn’t have a formal responsibility to deal with abandoned gas wells or sour gas wells, Shropshire said. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is responsible for abandoned gas wells and the Ministry of Environment is responsible for abandoned water wells, he said, so the province has been asked to take charge.

“So far they have provided information, but they have not taken on that responsibility,” he said.

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