By Mark Ribble
The Southpoint Sun
Ontario government officials visited Wheatley on Aug. 23 to announce a new $11-million funding package to the Municipality of Chatham Kent — earmarked for fallout from the August 2021 explosion in Wheatley.
Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Graydon Smith took to the podium to make the announcement, which separates into $8 million for direct emergency expenses such as gas monitoring, security and ongoing external investigations; $3 million to support Chatham-Kent’s ongoing risk management and investigation efforts to add more safety infrastructure to the explosion site; and an additional $225,000 to help fund the Wheatley Task Force, a group formed by residents and businesses to support community redevelopment.
Chatham-Kent Leamington MPP Trevor Jones was happy to welcome Smith to Wheatley.
“I’m proud to be from this community,” said Jones. “I want to extend a welcome to everyone here from the community.”
Smith talked about getting the sense of incredible strength within the community.
“On my car ride in, I noticed a sign that said ‘Wheatley Strong,’” he said. “This community has certainly been all of that.”
Smith also announced that the province will continue the business and resident support program that has been in place since early in the investigation.
When asked what the plans were for the future of Wheatley, the minister indicated that the focus is to get back to normal eventually.
He said there is still lots to be done with regard to mitigating the risk surrounding the blast zone, but that with the venting currently in place, they believe the area is safe.
Chatham-Kent CAO Michael Duben said that the plan to purchase the business properties within the blast zone is moving forward with the intent to do an underground investigation and then turn their attention toward redevelopment of the area.
Chatham-Kent Coun. and member of the Wheatley Task Force Lauren Anderson said that the task force is looking at ways to rebuild uptown, once the properties are purchased and the underground investigations allow for it.
A total of 11 property owners are involved in the business talks.
Another dozen families are still not back in the homes they were in when the blast occurred two two years ago and it was clear that residents in attendance at the announcement were looking for more answers than they received.
Smith told the crowd that, “We are committed to ensuring that our plan also aligns with your needs.”
The province previously announced a $26 million investment to manage the risks posed by old oil and gas wells and subsurface gas migration hazards to help keep people and communities safe. That program is ongoing. To date, $29.5 million has been invested to plug 415 wells across the province.
Three of those wells are in the blast zone in Wheatley.