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Plan B sought for toxic gas well in Norfolk

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Norfolk County is going back to the drawing board in search of a solution to an abandoned gas well in Silver Hill that is leaking toxic fumes.

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In doing so, the county is beginning with a clean slate.

Norfolk council took a first step Aug. 18 when it approved $140,000 in funding for an engineering study.

“Subsequent to the first approach being unsuccessful, staff engaged with the Ministry of Natural Resources as to next steps,” CAO Jason Burgess said in a report to council. “Though MNR would not commit to additional funding, they noted that – if there were to be additional funding – a third-party engineering report would have to be developed that evaluated options for stopping the leaking well.”

Norfolk council also approved funding for a project consultant. The county has no one on staff with the geotechnical qualifications to oversee the work.

Money for the engineering report will be drawn from the $1-million strategic-initiative fund council approved in the 2019 budget. Funding for the project manager will be derived from payroll savings arising from vacant positions left unfilled.

“Due to the public health aspect of this issue, there is little choice in moving forward,” Burgess said.

The gas well at issue is located about 19 kilometres southwest of Simcoe, on Forestry Farm Road, immediately north of the intersection of McDowell Road West. The well is submerged in a wetland on county property.

The well is spewing occasionally high levels of hydrogen sulphide gas, which is flammable and corrosive. In trace amounts, the gas will irritate eyes, throats and nasal passages. Motorists passing through the affected area will notice a strong smell of rotten eggs.

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In partnership with the University of Waterloo, Norfolk earlier this year thought it had a solution that involved drilling a relief well. However, the water table in Silver Hill proved too high and the plan was abandoned.

Windham Coun. Chris Van Paassen likened the $140,000 to an investment in Norfolk County and the well-being of its residents.

“It’s like putting a stake up for a poker game,” Van Paassen said at the Aug. 18 council meeting. “Hopefully, Jason (Burgess) can get it back from the province.”

Burgess said it is unfortunate that Plan A came up empty. He acknowledged that the rogue well is a source of anxiety for adjoining property owners. No studies have been done as to the health effects of long-term exposure to hydrogen sulphide gas.

“We know residents hate the delays, and we feel it,” Burgess said.

A University of Waterloo geoscientist explained last year that toxic fumes in Silver Hill are caused when natural gas combined with water reacts in the ground with sulphur deposits near the surface. The initial plan called for lowering the water table in the wetland to the point where groundwater was no longer in contact with the sulphur.

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