Alberta town on the verge of collapse due to aging oil wells
Published Saturday, November 7, 2020 7:00AM EST Last Updated Saturday, November 7, 2020 8:04PM EST
CALMAR, ALTA. -- A small Alberta town that once prospered thanks to the oil industry is now edging ever closer to collapsing because of it.
Old oil well sites drilled in the 1960s and 70s surround Calmar, Alta., which is located about 50 kilometres southwest of Edmonton. All of the drilling equipment and infrastructure is gone and all that remains are open pits filled with potentially contaminated soil.
Because of this, none of that land can be developed.
"Companies came, they drilled, they made millions of dollars and then they left," states Michelle Levasseur, the town’s economic development officer. "If I'm unable to help this community grow by creating jobs and development, then our community essentially could die."
One parcel of land the town would like to develop includes 130 acres of prime real estate located right off the main highway and backs onto a rail line. The property can accommodate modern industry, which could employ hundreds. About 2,200 people call Calmar home.
The property has been vacant for decades because the level of contamination is unknown. It’s a gamble that developers are not willing to take because cleaning up the soil could cost millions.
“According to the provincial and federal rules, our sites are not clean to today's standards,” says Levasseur.
Most of the well sites in Calmar are called "legacy sites." This refers to a company doing some type of site remediation, but only cleaning up the land to the standard of the time it was completed.
What this means for the community is that the sites are not up to modern day environmental standards and therefore are presumed to be contaminated. The extent of the contamination is unknown because the cost of testing is simply too expensive for the town to undertake.
"So when you do an environmental assessment, there's two processes. A phase one and phase two. These range anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000,” explains Levasseur.
It would amount to a one per cent tax increase for Calmar residents to test just one site. The town would need to test dozens of sites and that is simply to understand the level of contamination left behind.
It's a financial burden Levaseur says “is not fiscally responsible for our council or our administration to ask our current residents to fund the sins of the father.”
The financial burden does not end there. The final cost for cleaning up the wells could skyrocket depending on the assessment's findings, costing the town or potential developers million of dollars.