Sulphide alert zone expands
The toxic gas situation in Silver Hill could get worse before it gets better.
On Thursday, county officials opened lines of communication with an additional 16 households in the area of North Walsingham Road 10 in anticipation of a natural gas capping operation this week.
Several of the households in the expanded zone are located on the North Walsingham East Quarter Line Road.
The households at issue are within 800 metres of two old gas wells that are emitting unusually high readings of hydrogen sulphide gas.
In a news release, Norfolk County says hydrogen sulphide concentrations in the neighbourhood could rise as a result of the capping operation. The goal is to plug the well and cap it and hope this reduces hydrogen sulphide readings to acceptable levels.
“Public safety is our top priority,” Mayor Charlie Luke said in the release. “Please follow the warnings from your emergency officials. Stay away from the area.”
Hydrogen sulphide gas is a byproduct of natural gas production. Hydrogen sulphide is toxic, corrosive, combustible and smells like rotten eggs.
On Aug. 18, several homes on North Walsingham Road 10 were evacuated due to hydrogen sulphide readings exceeding the recommended safety limit. The number of evacuated households has since risen to six.
An 800-metre section of North Walsingham Road 10 has been barricaded and is off-limits to vehicular traffic. Barricades have also been posted at the road’s entrance at Forestry Farm Road and the North Walsingham East Quarter Line. These barricades restrict vehicles to local traffic only.
The capping operation involves an abandoned gas well on the property of Ian and Kim Grant. The Grants recently brought the problem to the attention of the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit after fumes discoloured metal objects on their property.
At a special meeting of Norfolk council last week, Dr. Malcolm Lock – Haldimand and Norfolk’s acting medical officer of health – said four of six households under evacuation orders have complied.
Provincial legislation allows medical officers of health to levy fines up to $5,000 a day for individuals who disobey evacuation orders.
However, Lock said last week he won’t exercise this power due to fluctuating levels of hydrogen sulphide and the difficulty in proving a persistent hazard from a legal standpoint.
A householder in the evacuation zone called Postmedia last week to protest the order. The caller asked not to be identified over fears of repercussions.
The caller said gas fumes have been a fact of life in the affected zone for years and that there have been no noticeable impacts on health.
“To block us out is just ridiculous,” the caller said. “It should be up to the homeowners. What if there is looting? What if there’s a fire?
“We have not smelled anything here in quite a while. Once in a while you get a whiff, but that’s about it.
“We want access to our homes. We want the barriers removed. Can they not just do that for us? I’m just so frustrated. Now we can’t even drive down the road. It’s awful.”
The caller’s family has a long history in the affected area. The caller said problems arose several years ago when an old natural gas well beside Big Creek was capped.
Prior to the repair, the odour near the well was so pervasive that local residents referred to the waterway as “Stinky Creek.”
This capping operation coupled with elevated readings of hydrogen sulphide from gas wells to the east has prompted speculation that capping the well beside Big Creek caused the underlying gas deposit to seek pressure-release points in nearby locations.
If so, many more wells in the area may have to be capped before hydrogen sulphide readings drop to stable, safe levels.
Norfolk County has acted because – under provincial legislation – municipalities are responsible for public health and safety. Because of these responsibilities and the liability that attends them, the chances of the county easing up on access are slim.
“There exists the possibility that emissions could suddenly increase or decrease without warning, resulting in variable emissions and concentrations,” senior staff wrote in a report to Norfolk council.