Graydon Smith, Ontario’s minister of natural resources and forestry, centre, was in Simcoe on Thursday to announce funding to plug abandoned oil and gas wells leaking toxic gasses in southwestern Ontario. On hand for the announcement were Norfolk County Mayor Amy Martin, right, and fire chief Gord Stilwell. -J.P. Antonacci/The Hamilton SpectatorJ.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Provincial funding to deal with thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells littering southwestern Ontario has started to flow into Norfolk, Haldimand and Brant.

The three rural counties are among the municipalities that will split $7.5 million over the next three years to monitor so-called legacy wells and boost preparedness in the event of gas leaks or other emergencies.

“These investments will plug old oil and gas wells and provide research to better understand the issue,” said Graydon Smith, Ontario’s minister of natural resources, during a funding announcement at town hall in Simcoe on Thursday.

The money is part of a $23.6-million action plan the province unveiled last June to assess the risk posed by abandoned wells — about 6,000 of which can be found in Haldimand-Norfolk.

There are more than 27,000 known oil and gas wells on private property in Ontario, an inconvenient legacy of the province’s days as a petroleum pioneer in the mid- to late 19th century.

Some of those wells still provide natural gas to heat rural farms and homes, while others are securely plugged.

The most dangerous are the more than 8,000 wells that were abandoned decades ago and left uncapped, or whose seals have deteriorated over time.

Provincial natural resources minister Graydon Smith, left, outlines the government’s plan to tackle legacy oil and gas wells that pose a risk to public health and the environment during a funding announcement in Simcoe on Thursday. Norfolk County Mayor Amy Martin, right, thanked the province for helping to address a longstanding problem in southwestern Ontario. Uploaded by: Antonacci, JP

In some cases, those unmaintained wells leak toxic gases like methane and hydrogen sulphide, which is flammable and can be fatal in high concentration.

Toxic “burps” from unplugged wells release poisonous gasses and noxious smells, fouling the air and water and making people and animals sick.

The worst-case scenario came in August 2021 in Wheatley, Ont., when an underground gas explosion levelled several buildings and injured 20 people in the small fishing port in Chatham-Kent.

The province later found and plugged three uncapped petroleum wells near the blast site.

The companies that dug Ontario’s abandoned gas wells are long gone, and the responsibility for sealing them and remediating the sites has fallen to landowners.

Some Haldimand-Norfolk residents previously told the Sachem they are reluctant to report abandoned wells they find on their properties for fear of being hit with a hefty bill. The cost to plug a well can easily reach five or six figures, as the specialized work requires hiring expensive contractors.

“This is about safety,” Smith said. “We would encourage property owners to reach out. This isn’t about trying to assign blame or fault on anybody.”

The ministry’s action plan, he added, “is all to make sure that people feel comfortable in doing the right thing and reaching out to us, so we can better understand the risks — or potentially the lack of risk — that an individual well may pose.”

Since 2005, the abandoned works program run by the ministry of natural resources — which plugs inactive oil and gas wells that pose the most serious risk to public safety and the environment — has spent $29.5 million to plug 415 wells.

A further $6 million was allotted to the program last spring.

Two leaking wells in western Norfolk have attracted notoriety.

In 2017, the health unit ordered residents of nearly two dozen homes in Silver Hill, near Langton, to temporarily move out due to poisonous gas spewing from a since-plugged well.

A well located in a county-owned woodlot on Forestry Farm Road, west of Pinegrove, has been belching methane and hydrogen sulphide for almost a decade, confounding repeated and costly efforts to plug it.

Signage, road barricades and fencing warn passersby to avoid the area.

“There’s a potential health risk there, but we’re mitigating that by keeping people out of the area and monitoring on a regular basis,” Norfolk fire chief Gord Stilwell told The Spectator.

Part of the $280,000 allotted to Norfolk from Queen’s Park will allow for further geological studies and 24-hour monitoring at the Forestry Farm Road site, where leaking gas was first detected in 2015.

“We know that’s been a challenging one that has taken more resources and money, but we’ll invest what it takes to get the job done and get it done correctly,” Smith said.

Norfolk will also buy gas monitoring and health and safety equipment, develop an educational campaign aimed at residents, and train staff, including first responders, to stay safe around gas wells.

Mayor Amy Martin said she is glad to see the province take action on gas wells after years of advocacy from affected municipalities.

“Norfolk appreciates the province’s support with this regional matter and the acknowledgment that municipalities need to be equipped to address issues like this that cross multiple municipal boundaries,” Martin said.

“Community safety remains our shared top priority.”

Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Bobbi Ann Brady and MP Leslyn Lewis have previously called for Ottawa’s help to plug abandoned wells, noting there is a federal program to clean up orphan gas wells in Western Canada but no similar support for Ontario.

“We’d love (the federal government) to come to the table to increase our capacity even more,” Smith said.

“I know that by working together, we can help prevent future incidents and keep Ontarians safe.”

By J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jan 22, 2024 at 10:53

This item reprinted with permission from   The Spectator   Hamilton, Ontario

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