Gas leak forces out families


June 7, 2010

CALMAR, ALBERTA — Five new Calmar homes have to be removed to make room for a drilling rig to seal an abandoned natural gas well discovered in one family’s backyard.

In what the Energy Resources Conservation Board called “a unique situation,” two families have already moved and Imperial Oil has confirmed it may have to purchase three other adjacent modular homes in the community, 50 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.

Stacy Smith, whose backyard deck is a few metres from the wellhead, said many neighbours were unaware of the situation until they were called last week to a meeting by Imperial Oil.

She and her husband, Trevor, who moved into the Evergreen subdivision in October 2006, heard rumours two years ago after another leaking gas well was discovered on the grounds of a nearby elementary school.

“Initially, I had a hard time finding out what was going on,” Smith said. “Our neighbour came to us in the fall of 2008 and told us either our house or the house next to us had a leaking well. We didn’t really believe it.”

Smith said she had noticed bubbles in a puddle in the back lane, but didn’t link it to a leaking gas well. Neither did her neighbour, who has since sold her home to Imperial and moved.

“She was going to put her fire pit right there where the well was. It’s rather shocking,” Smith said

“They’re offering us just slightly more than we paid when we moved in here. We’ve put at least double that into our property, but they aren’t interested in paying us for the improvements. It’s been incredibly stressful. I’m at the end of my rope. I am just so sick of it.”

Nobody knows how the residential subdivision was approved for development without anyone noticing there was an abandoned wellhead in the middle of the project.

Town public works director Ed Melesko said when the land was reclaimed 50 years ago, the well was taken off the land title and no one checked any further.

But he said there’s evidence the well was detected by someone when the subdivision was being constructed.

“Somebody knew it was there because somebody hit it and nobody bothered to tell anybody,” Melesko said. “If nobody reports it to us, we never know about it. That subdivision got built.”

The developer, Aztec Homes, went out of business, but the owner now operates another construction company in town that sells modular homes. He declined a request for an interview.

Residents said the home closest to the well is the only home without a basement.

“Most of the people who live in the area think somebody should have known and if nobody did, that’s a bit of a problem,” said resident Heather Bouzane.

Bouzane said she and her husband Joe had saved up to take their three young children on a holiday to their native Newfoundland this summer, but now it looks like they will be moving. “I’m actually quite glad to hear we’re one of the houses to go,” she said. “Now I don’t have to deal with the noise and everything. I am glad we’re being bought out and won’t have to deal with this any further. It’s been stressful. It’s just a lot of hassle for something that should never have happened in the first place.”

Imperial Oil has temporarily sealed the leak and erected a tin shed over the wellhead, but says it must bring a rig on-site to seal or “abandon” the well to current Energy Resources Conservation Board specifications.

Residents worry their property values will fall and wonder if there are more wells.

Imperial Oil is involved with three leaking wells in the area, but the other two are in open areas – a schoolyard and a park. One has already been permanently sealed.

Imperial Oil spokeswoman Laura Bishop said the wells were drilled by Texaco in the 1950s, but Imperial assumed responsibility for their maintenance with its purchase of Texaco in 1989. She said that in the 1950s and 1960s, it was common practice to remove as much production casing from the wells as possible before sealing them. More than 1,000 metres of casing were removed from the Evergreen Crescent well, which means sweet gas is seeping from formations 250 to 350 metres below ground, she said.

To permanently seal the wells, Imperial Oil plans to remove the modular homes and bring in a service rig during in the summer of 2011 to install a new casing in the well, cement it in place and eventually to cut off the pipe two metres below ground.

The abandoned well will require a permanent setback, which means the area around the well will be converted to parkland, she said.

“Our primary focus is the health and safety of the residents and our employees and contractors,” she said. “We also want to minimize any inconvenience to them while we’re doing the work … We’re looking at different plans so they don’t have to be home when the work is being done.”

Bishop said preparatory work and drilling could take up to six weeks.

Residents of some of the homes that will remain are dreading the prospect of having a drilling rig in the middle of their town of 2,000.

“There’s no way I would have bought a house in this area if I knew there was a wellhead here – and on top of everything else, it’s a leaking well,” said Cyndi Olson, 50, a physician who is recovering from two open-heart surgeries. “I am fairly angry.”

Olson said she was hoping to convalesce in a quiet neighbourhood in “a nice quiet little town.”

“What am I going to do now? “ she asked. “It will be pretty disturbing for me as far as my heart goes. It’s a huge concern for me.”

Her husband, Ralph, 51, said one of his biggest beefs is there has been no one to turn to for advice or help.

He said local and provincial politicians all passed the buck. “It was probably the most frustrating part to me,” he said. “Nobody seems to care.”

Mayor Kirk Popik said Calmar is a good community despite this “unfortunate event.”

“I don’t think this is the end of the town,” he said. “These things happen. They are unfortunately very common, but when you get down to the human factor, it’s a big event.”

Both he and Melesko said the town has changed its practices to check development areas for abandoned oilpatch infrastructure.

The ERCB said it has been available for more than 10 years to municipal planning authorities and land developers to identify all oil and gas infrastructure in areas under consideration for development.

“It is very similar to the call-before-you-dig program, and is used commonly, particularly over the past years given Alberta’s growth,” ERCB spokesman Darin Barter said.

dhenton@thejournal.canwest.com

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