Not long after coming back from reporting on the flooding in British Columbia, I headed to Wheatley and found a community in a state of suspended animation. My report on the mystery surrounding the gas explosion that leveled three buildings and turned the town’s center in a no-go zone, cut off from electricity and other utilities, appeared this week.
Most of Wheatley is still standing. Only three buildings, including a recently opened motel, at the town’s crossroads were wrecked. But after fleeing their homes in late August, members of only about half of the 100 displaced households have been allowed back for just one hour to grab clothing and other personal belongings. Nearly all of the community’s stores, small businesses and professional offices remain closed.
As I wrote in my article, determining exactly what caused the explosion still eludes investigators. The most likely sources are two 19th-century natural gas wells buried under the town’s center. But the constant threat of another explosion has slowed the investigation, to the frustration of people left out of their homes for more than four months.
Late one afternoon, I met Stephanie Charbonneau at the fence that’s keeping her just steps away from “Big Red,” her family’s large brick home. Like many people in town, she described the family’s situation as almost surreal.
If a tornado swept through the neighborhood, Mrs. Charbonneau said, “you can take in the wreckage to help you process what’s happened to you.”
“We just don’t have that to process what we’ve been through,” she added.
Mrs. Charbonneau wasn’t, of course, wishing a tornado on her town. But the effect of the explosion has been similar. Because of the potential danger, though, her insurance company still hasn’t been able to send workers into the house to drain its radiators and water pipes. Given that some pipes recently froze in the farmhouse that’s her family’s temporary home, Mrs. Charbonneau fears the worst for her unheated house.
While there was no widespread destruction in Wheatley, I saw the same sense of the community coming together to help people who were out of their homes that I’d previously witnessed in British Columbia. Everyone had a story about being helped out with housing, clothing, even children’s Christmas presents by people who lived outside the closed zone or in neighboring communities.
The need is very real. The local food bank, which had to relocate, served five to seven families a week in early 2020. Currently it has 40 clients, including individuals and families. It’s also now offering to include household goods and clothing. Donors have been generous to the point where the food bank is outgrowing its space, which includes a refrigerated semi trailer.
For the local businesses, the town’s state of limbo has added to the stresses caused by pandemic shutdowns. Fortunately for the local economy, the fish processing plants and the shipyard that are the big local employers are on the Lake Erie shoreline, a short drive or a long walk from downtown.
There is talk locally that if a permanent solution for the leaking gas can’t be found, it might be necessary to move the town center down toward the harbor.
That, however, might just be trading one problem for another. For the past few years, a long stretch of the former provincial highway that is Wheatley’s main street has been closed a few kilometers east of town. It runs on top of a cliff that has eroded, most likely because of climate change, to the point where officials fear that the road may vanish into Lake Erie.
While no of the people I met in Wheatley said they had anticipated a gas explosion — or had even known that the town might have been built on top of three abandoned wells — the issue of the oil and gas industry’s past haunting the present isn’t unique to the town. It is a major problem in Alberta, where there are about 71,000 abandoned wells in need of cleanup, although they are overwhelmingly outside urban areas.
Shopping is now very limited in Wheatley. One gas station, a feed store and the provincial government liquor store sit outside the restricted zone. But anyone looking for a liter of milk or a loaf of bread must get behind the wheel.
But until new Covid restrictions descended on all of Ontario, the town did have 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 town’s eastern fringe.
Ms. Hyatt told me that she was grateful to be back in business. And she lives by the lake, far from the closed zone. But, like everyone I met in Wheatley, she wants the uncertainty to end.
“I want my town back,” she told me. “I don’t think it will ever be the same — that’s long gone. But I do believe that our community will find a way to make it feel like home again.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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