Not long after coming back from the report about flooding in British Columbia, I went to Wheatley and found a community that was in a suspended animation state. My report on the mystery surrounding the gas explosion that leveled three buildings and turned the town center into a no-go zone, with power and other utilities cut off, came out this week.
Much of Wheatley is still standing. Only three buildings, including a recently opened motel, at the intersection of the wrecked town. But after leaving their homes at the end of August, members of only about half of the 100 displaced households were allowed to return for just an hour to pick up clothes and other personal belongings. Nearly all community shops, small businesses, and professional offices remain closed.
As I wrote in my article, determining the exact cause of the explosion still eludes investigators. The likely sources are two 19th-century natural gas wells buried beneath the town center. But the constant threat of another explosion has slowed the investigation, to the chagrin of people who have left their homes for more than four months.
Late one afternoon, I met Stephanie Charbonneau at the fence that kept her just steps from “Big Red,” her family’s large brick home. Like many in town, she describes the family’s plight as almost surreal.
If a tornado sweeps through the vicinity, Ms. Charbonneau said, “you can get the wreckage to help you process what happened to you.”
“We don’t have that to handle what we’ve been through,” she added.
Of course, Mrs. Charbonneau didn’t want a tornado to hit her town. But the effects of the explosion were similar. Even so, because of the potential risk, her insurance company has not been able to send workers into the house to remove the radiator and water pipes. Given that some pipes had recently frozen over on the farm, her family’s temporary residence, Ms. Charbonneau fears the worst for her unheated home.
While there was no widespread devastation in Wheatley, I saw a shared sense of community helping the homeless that I had witnessed before. British Columbia. Everyone has stories of getting help with housing, clothes, even Christmas presents for children by people living outside of closed areas or in neighboring communities.
The demand is very real. The local food bank, which had to relocate, served 5-7 families a week in early 2020. It currently has 40 customers, including individuals and families. It also currently offers includes household goods and clothing. Donors have been so generous that the food bank is expanding its space, including a refrigerated semi-trailer.
For local businesses, the town’s limbo has added to the stress of the pandemic shutdown. Fortunately for the local economy, fish processing plants and shipyards are major local employers located on the shores of Lake Erie, a short drive or a mile from the city center. long walk.
There is a discussion locally that if a permanent solution to the leak cannot be found, it may be necessary to move the town center towards the harbour.
However, that might just be trading one problem for another. Over the past few years, a long stretch of the county road formerly the main thoroughfare of Wheatley has been closed a few kilometers east of town. It runs atop a cliff that has been eroded, most likely by climate change, to the point where officials fear the path could disappear into Lake Erie.
Though none of the people I met in Wheatley said they had predicted a gas explosion – or even knew that the town might have been built on top of three abandoned wells – a matter of the past. Oil and gas industry’s current obsession isn’t unique to the town. It’s a big deal in Alberta, where about 71,000 abandoned wells need to be cleaned up, although they are overwhelming outside urban areas.
Shopping is currently very limited in Wheatley. A gas station, a feed store and a liquor store run by the provincial government are located outside the restricted area. But anyone looking for a pint of milk or a loaf of bread has to get behind the wheel.
But until the new Covid restrictions applied across all of Ontario, the town had one gathering place. Hilary Hyatt was able to re-establish her cafe and restaurant, Lil Hil’s, in the clubhouse of a golf course on the eastern edge of town.
Ms. Hyatt told me she was grateful to be back in business. And she lives by the lake, far from the closed area. But, like everyone I met at Wheatley, she wanted the uncertainty to end.
“I want my town back,” she told me. “I don’t think it will stay that way – that’s long gone. But I believe our community will find a way to make it feel at home again. “
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has covered Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/15/world/canada/wheatley-ontario-explosion.html Ontario town still searching for answers in gas leak explosion