C-K purchases properties in Wheatley blast zone

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(Image courtesy Mark Ribble/Southpoint Sun) The aftermath of the August 2021 explosion that demolished two buildings, damaged others and injured 20 people is shown here. The municipality is spending $3.5 million to purchase five of the properties at the centre of the site.

By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

As part of the post-explosion plan to revitalize Wheatley, Chatham-Kent is moving ahead with the purchase of properties located within the community’s evacuation zone.

At its Feb. 5 meeting, council voted to buy five properties, including Royal Canadian Legion Branch 324. The sites were determined to be unsuitable for redevelopment following an engineering assessment from T.L. Watson and Associates and WSP Canada Inc.

The purchases include 15 Erie Street N; 19-23 Erie St N; 29-33 Erie St. N, 37 Erie Street N, and 27 Erie St. (the Legion).

Individual price tags on the properties are $94,000; $120,000; $1.2 million; $795,000 and $1.2 million, respectively for a total of $3.5 million.

According to a report from public works director Ryan Brown, the bulk of the cost will be funded through a $3-million provincial grant, with the remainder to come from the municipality’s strategic reserves in accordance with reserve fund policies. Brown said the five properties account for about half of the buildings located in the evacuation zone and plans are in the works to negotiate the purchase of the remaining sites in question.

Further investigation will also take place, Brown told council.

“The real intent of trying to move forward with this is so that we can line up demolition of the buildings and also explore underneath them,” Brown said, adding there’s a possibility of finding wells on the site that haven’t yet been discovered.

Work at the blast site since the August 2021 explosion has been ongoing. Caused by a gas leak into an old water well, hydrogen sulfide gas collected in the basement of one of the buildings before igniting. Two buildings were demolished and some 20 people were injured.

As well, a number of residents were unable to return to their homes during a lengthy evacuation period.

Another step towards safety for the community is also being taken as officials are preparing Lower Explosive Limits (LEL) gas monitoring packages to be distributed to residents and businesses, beginning in the evacuation zone.

Brown said 500 of the monitoring units have been ordered and Chatham-Kent Fire & Rescue will be going door to door to distribute them, beginning in the core area and then moving outward into the community.

The monitors are expected to arrive within a month, Brown said.

West Kent Coun. Lauren Anderson thanked Brown and other municipal staff for taking the initiative to apply for the funding to enhance the remediation process, noting the added measures will bring Wheatley residents “peace of mind.”

Currently, staff from a safety company are on site 24/7 conducting ambient air monitoring, as well as monitoring well and scrubber equipment.

A bylaw to prohibit digging below six metres in the evacuation zone was also brought forward as an additional safeguard. It will be voted on by council at a future meeting.

To date, the Wheatley emergency has cost more than $22 million, with approximately $16.4 million of that coming from provincial coffers.

A $100-million class-action lawsuit has also been launched against Chatham-Kent by a Windsor law firm seeking compensation for people impacted by the explosion.

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