Leamington man says order to plug leaking gas well could cost him his house

A Leamington property owner says the discovery of a well that is leaking gas in the corner of one of his lots could cause him to lose his house and is fighting with the provincial government over who will pay the hefty bill to plug it.

It could cost as much as $900,000 to plug the well

David Cockerham says the amount of gas eminating from the well is equivalent to that of a pilot light on a hot water heater. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

A Leamington property owner is fighting with the province about who is responsible for cleaning up a water well that is leaking gas on one of his lots.

"The situation is kind of at a stalemate," David Cockerham said.

Cockerham is currently being ordered by the Ministry of Environment to plug a well that sits in the corner of a lot that he owns next to his primary residence — a job that could potentially cost upwards of $900,000. 

"I have to ask myself, what can I afford, what's the reasonable thing to do, what makes the most sense in terms of options and how does that affect the community, how does that affect my neighbours," he said.

"The decision is, you don't do something that is unsafe, something that is unknown."

Cockerham, who lives in the 100 block of Robson Road, uncovered the leaking pipe on the lot in 2016. It smelled of rotten eggs, the signature smell of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a substance that is both flammable and corrosive.

David Cockerham's well

2 years ago
Duration 1:09
The well on David Cockerham's property in Leamington could cause him to lose his house.

The provincial government has determined the well is a water well and therefore does not fall under the Ministry of Natural Resources Abandoned Works program, which would cover the costs to deal with it. The Ministry of Environment deals with water well remediation and puts the onus on property owners.

"I'm not going to do it," he said, adding that the ministry is moving forward.

"They're going to do the engineering reports to drill, [and] they're going to charge me for it which means they would probably have to take my property to pay for it and they're going drill anyway."

Similar discussions

A similar debate about which government department was responsible happened this summer after an explosion caused by H2S gas destroyed two buildings in Wheatley. In the end, it was the Ministry of Natural Resources that took the lead.

"We know what happened in Wheatley and that shouldn't have happened," Cockerham said. 

The after effects of two buildings destroyed in downtown Wheatley on Aug. 27, 2021 after an explosion occurred one day before. (Mike Evans/CBC)

He discovered the well around the same time another well was being dealt with on a property just down the road — a task that was covered by the Ministry of Natural Resources. 

Jim McIntosh, a petroleum engineer, said he worked on that project and inspected Cockerham's as well.

"It appears to be potentially very similar," McIntosh said.

McIntosh said there's a natural gas reservoir beneath the Leamington/Kingsville area which produces natural gas but has H2S in it which is why in the case of the other well, the provincial government did take on the cost. 

"It could be a natural gas well or it could be a water well, we really don't know," McIntosh said. "The difference between the two is really the depth which the well has been drilled to." 

Plugging this well doesn't mean the problem is going away. It's just going to pop up somewhere else.— Jim McIntosh

McIntosh said that nothing in the records the government is relying on matches exactly where the well is on the property. He wrote the provincial government to point out the type of well is questionable and that if it were a water well, the gas that is in it is coming from somewhere else.

"We know the gas is coming from something deeper in the ground than the fresh water aquifer," McIntosh said.

"The fresh water aquifer, if it wasn't attached to old, improperly plugged and abandoned oil and gas wells, it wouldn't have that kind of natural gas in it."

McIntosh said that to properly excavate the well, at least a portion of the neighbouring house would likely have to be removed and the work could increase the amount of gas coming from the well. Safety concerns could potentially mean some residents would have to leave.

Capping a well

2 years ago
Duration 0:43
Jim McIntosh has worked on well leaks before and says closing one well doesn't mean the problem is over.

"Because it's gas with H2S in it, it's a really awkward position for David to be able to provide all the services and stuff that would be necessary to re-enter and plug it even if it's a very shallow water well," he said. 

"When you look at that saying an individual landlord has to pay for that, that just doesn't sound right."

Regional issue

McIntosh said that the fact that there is gas in the aquifer is a regional issue and should not fall on Cockerham's shoulder's.

"How many more straws are contacting that aquifer is ... we don't have good records on but just the fact that he spends the money plugging this well doesn't mean the problem is going away. It's just going to pop up somewhere else," McIntosh said.

Cockerham said that his lawyer is making people aware of the situation and is asking for an intervention, though would not share exactly how that process is working. 

"What they're asking me to do is endanger my community, to endanger my neighbours, so how can you charge me?" Cockerham said.

"The situation is so illogical and so absurd."

CBC news reached out to the Ministry of Environment but it has not yet responded.


Jacob Barker


Jacob Barker is a videojournalist for CBC Windsor.