October 26, 2021

theencoreescape

The Passionate Pursuit of Law

Airdrie motel owners take legal action over gas station contamination

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A family that owns an Airdrie motel is suing Suncor Energy over what it calls the company’s failure to properly clean up contamination from one of its nearby gas stations.

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The Jessa family, which has owned the Horseman Motel in the city north of Calgary since 1987, said it’s lost patience with the company’s half-hearted efforts to remove hydrocarbon contaminants that leaked from the tanks of a Petro-Canada station near the family’s property.

The lingering presence of the toxins beneath the family’s motel and an adjacent liquor store they also own has severely impacted the properties’ value — what would normally amount to $7 million — and made selling them virtually impossible, said Nahid Jessa.

“We really can’t do anything — our long-term goals are out the window,” he said.

After emigrating from east Africa in the 1970s, Zubeda Jessa and her husband Firoz were thrilled by the business potential of the 41-room Airdrie motel at 531 – 3 Ave. N.E. and purchased it with no knowledge of what would lay beneath it, said the woman.

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“It was very busy and exciting for us because every day it was fully booked,” said Nahid’s mother Zubeda, 74.

With the business thriving, they added a liquor store next door in 1994.

It was then that they learned of the subterranean contamination from the adjacent gas station, operated by Suncor subsidiary Petro-Canada, she said.

“After we found out there’s oil there, that’s it,” said Zubeda, adding the family initially took on the cost of cleaning up the property.

“We had to sell my Calgary house and our (takeout food) business in Sunridge Mall,” she said. “Every day it’s stressful.”

But she added that the remediation work didn’t solve the problem — a reality made clear by test bore holes that detected the spreading presence beneath their properties of hydrocarbons from the leaky service station tanks, said the family.

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Zubeda Jessa poses for a photo outside Horseman liquor store, run by her family, neighbouring a Petro-Canada gas station in Airdrie on Thursday, August 12, 2021.
Zubeda Jessa poses for a photo outside Horseman liquor store, run by her family, neighbouring a Petro-Canada gas station in Airdrie on Thursday, August 12, 2021. Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Postmedia

The family noted it entered into an eight-year agreement to hold off on legal action against Suncor in return for the company’s full cleanup of the land.

Suncor, they said, made efforts to break down the contaminants in 2009 with chemical injections and venting work was performed.

But with only an inadequate job done on the site, said Nihad Jessa, his family has cancelled the agreement and resumed their legal action to force a thorough cleanup.

“They’re been stringing us along, purposely dragging it out,” he said.

“Our family just wants to move on.”

An independent assessment sought by the family showed there’s no immediate health risk from the contamination, but that hasn’t removed the longer-term uncertainty posed by the hydrocarbons, said Nihad.

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“Nobody knows what’s underneath the motel; we just know one bore hole keeps showing contamination that keeps being released below the middle of the motel,” he said.

“If we pulled down the old motel to rebuild a new one, we might (see) something in the bedrock; it’s happened before.”

So far, the contamination has cost the family $1.5 million in legal and environmental consultant fees, they said.

In an amended statement of defence dating back to 1995, Petro-Canada denied it was the source of any contamination.

But in a statement this week, a Suncor spokeswoman said the company was still working in good faith with the Jessas to remediate the property.

“Suncor takes its environmental obligations seriously. We have conducted remediation activities at the site in consultation with the Jessas and Alberta Environment and continue to responsibly manage our environmental obligations,” said Mita Adesanya.

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“We are in contact with Alberta Environment and are open to working with the Jessas to reach a satisfactory outcome.”

An official with Alberta Environment and Parks had much the same message, saying they were monitoring the site for any potential health hazards.

“Alberta Environment is currently in the process of working with both parties, and continues to explore options that provide assurance that there is no unacceptable risk of exposure associated with the residual contamination,” said a statement from the ministry.

Zubeda Jessa said she’d be happy if Suncor agreed to purchase their property and end what seems like an endless nightmare.

“We were told it would take two years to clean, but it’s taken nearly 30 years,” she said.

[email protected]

Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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