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Residents, businesses of Ontario town allege negligence in proposed class action suit

Chatham-Kent fire on the scene of a natural gas explosion in Wheatley, Ont., Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. A group of residents and businesses affected by the explosion last year are seeking $100 million in damages in a proposed class action lawsuit against Chatham-Kent and a company that was hired to find the source of a gas leak linked to the blast.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke

TORONTO — A group of residents and businesses have filed a proposed class action lawsuit over an explosion in a small Ontario town, alleging negligence by the municipality and a company hired to find the source of a gas leak that led to the blast. 

A building was levelled in downtown Wheatley, Ont., and 20 people required medical attention after the blast on Aug. 26, 2021. 

A statement of claim, which seeks $100 million in damages, was filed Friday by a law firm representing six residents and businesses in the town. The Corporation of the Municipality of Chatham-Kent and HSE Integrated Ltd. were named as defendants.

The document alleged the blast "was caused by the negligence" of the defendants after hydrogen sulphide gas leaked to a building from one or more of three wells in the area before igniting. 

The explosion at a privately owned building was close to a location where hydrogen sulphide gas was first discovered in June 2021, prompting an evacuation order and the declaration of a state of emergency.

In July 2021, local officials declared a second state of emergency after confirming hydrogen sulphide was once again present in the building that was levelled in the August explosion.

The municipality of Chatham-Kent took possession of the homes and businesses in the area that had been evacuated, the statement of claim said. 

"While in possession of the property of the class members, Chatham-Kent, its employees, council members and contractors had a duty to take all reasonable care of the class members’ property," the lawsuit said. 

"Their failure to do so resulted in damages to the property of the class members."

The statement alleged the municipality failed to ensure electrical power was restored to the properties in a timely manner, failed to shut off the water and drain the waterlines and did not maintain a proper temperature in the properties, among other alleged shortcomings that caused damages to the properties. 

It also alleged that residents suffered loss of income and diminution in their properties' value and they were unable to return to their homes and businesses for a period of time.

The proposed lawsuit needs to be certified by a judge to proceed, and the allegations haven't been argued or proven in court.

A lawyer for Chatham-Kent said the municipality was served with the proposed class action lawsuit on Tuesday, but did not comment on the allegations. 

"We are not able to provide any further comment on the allegations made in the lawsuit, as these will need to be addressed through the appropriate court processes," David Taylor said in a written statement.  

"Chatham-Kent’s focus remains on supporting our citizens impacted by this unfortunate situation, and working to implement safety systems at the site."

HSE Integrated Ltd did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In November 2021, the Ontario government said it would be providing $3.8 million in funding to support the community of Wheatley after already announcing $2 million in funding to the community earlier. 

The province said the funds would help evacuated residents with immediate needs such as housing and food, and ensure the Municipality of Chatham-Kent could continue to deliver emergency services.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2022.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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