Online photos, false demolition claims cause grief in wake of Wheatley explosion


Chatham-Kent officials are taking steps to deal with unfounded claims that other buildings near the explosion site in downtown Wheatley are going to be demolished.

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Chatham-Kent officials are taking steps to deal with unfounded claims that other buildings near the explosion site in downtown Wheatley are going to be demolished.

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The rumours began earlier this week when an unnamed individual allegedly posted close-up photos of the blast site, along with these claims, on social media.

“Our understanding is the photos were taken by a contractor that was on site to assist with the debris removal,” Don Shropshire, Chatham-Kent’s top administrator, said during a Thursday update. “The contract that we had with the company was not fulfilled and we’re taking steps to deal with that.”

Shropshire declined to provide further details about the company or the contract.

The structural integrity of the buildings close to the blast site has yet to be determined, Shropshire said, since access to the area has been limited to essential personnel. Until the source the gas leak suspected to be the source of the explosion is identified – and steps are taken to mitigate future leaks – it’s not safe to let people near the blast site, Shropshire said. This is why Chatham Kent’s chief building official – the person responsible for making that assessment – has not yet been allowed on site.

“There’s been no determination of further demolitions that are going to be required,” Shropshire said.

Because of the false claims, the municipality has received “anxious” calls from some residents that could have been avoided, the administrator added. These people, he said, have already suffered and have “a whole lot more to deal with.”

“I’m not sure what was behind the motivation, but it was inaccurate,” Shropshire said.

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Wheatley, a town of about 3,000 east of Leamington, had already been under a state of emergency following two previous toxic gas leaks. In early June, hydrogen sulphide – a toxic, corrosive and highly flammable gas – was discovered at an Erie Street North building in the town, forcing the evacuation of homes and businesses.

Chatham-Kent officials later declared a state of emergency.

The following month, three-dozen homes and businesses in Wheatley were evacuated after hydrogen sulphide was again detected at the site of the previous leak.

On Aug. 26, toxic gas detectors installed at the site raised the alarm at about 4:30 p.m., giving municipal staff and emergency crews time to evacuate buildings before the blast occurred about 90 minutes later. The explosion levelled two buildings in Wheatley’s downtown and injured 20 people.

Technical experts assembled in the wake of the blast have primarily been working off site as efforts continue to find the cause, which has included a pathway analysis of the hydrogen sulphide, which is believed to have come from an abandoned well in the area.

“Our focus as a municipality continues to be managing the risk,” which includes ongoing gas detection and monitoring, Shropshire said.

During the Labour Day weekend there was some dead vegetation and trees found in the evacuation zone near some Enbridge lines, which resulted in low levels of natural gas being detected, he noted.

Those trace amounts were determined not to be an immediate threat, but Shropshire noted emergency officials still turned off the electricity to approximately 50 locations within the evacuation zone Tuesday as a precaution.

No further natural gas has been detected in the area nor has any hydrogen sulphide been detected at the blast site since Aug. 26.

More than 90 per cent of the debris from the explosion is expected to be removed from the site by close of business on Thursday, Shropshire added.

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