The noisy patch of land just off the Queen Elizabeth II Highway in Airdrie, Alta., is a long way from the coffee fields of Uganda where Zubeda Jessa grew up. Every morning, she unlocks the front door of her liquor store to the constant stream of traffic on this busy stretch, 20 kilometres north of Calgary. She settles into her well-worn chair behind the counter, a Petro-Canada gas station visible through the barred side windows. 

It’s been the same routine for Zubeda almost every morning for the past 30 years, but it wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

When her late husband, Firoz, bought the patch of land in the early ‘90s, it was part of a larger vision. He had already bought the motel next door in 1987 and would later add an apartment block to the holdings. He wanted to cobble together properties where his wife and children could gather, work and play. He wanted, Zubeda says, a secure future for his family. 

That vision all but collapsed when contractors started digging out dirt and rock in 1994 to build the liquor store and found soil infused with gasoline, spilled from the Petro-Canada and an old Gulf gas station tank years before. The contamination, it would turn out, had spread past the would-be store and also contaminated the land under their motel. 

Soil soaked with oil products — which can be harmful to human health — is not unusual in Alberta, particularly from leaking underground oil and gas tanks. Although it is difficult to get any information on just how widespread the problem is, municipalities across the province list gas stations as by far their number one issue when dealing with old industrial sites that could have contamination.  

The act that governs contaminated sites in Alberta includes the principle of polluter pays, meaning the person or business responsible for the contamination should cover the expense of cleaning it up — but that principle is complicated in practice. 

Thirty years after it was excavated, Suncor, the current owner of Petro-Canada, has partially cleaned up the site and continues to monitor the contamination, but the Jessa family, which includes four adult children, is still trying to get the company to compensate them or to finish cleaning up. Until then, they say, they are stuck with land that is all but worthless. Zubeda says she has seen almost nothing of the world beyond her home, her work and the roads in between as a result. 

“I am 74, I have to get retirement,” Zubeda says from behind the counter of the Horseman Liquor Store one November morning. “I’m tired of working, 46 years I’m working with the three jobs, growing kids and working in the house, working in a business — 14 hours a day I was working.”

Fumes from contamination made people ‘dizzy’: report

Zubeda grew up in Uganda, but married her husband, Firoz, in Tanzania. They moved to Canada in 1971, following the advice of the Aga Khan to settle in new lands amidst turmoil in East Africa. They found their new home in Calgary, but eventually Firoz realized the potential in what was then a small town north of the big city. 

Airdrie was growing, the ‘88 Olympics were just around the corner and every time Firoz drove out to look at the Horseman Motel, the parking lot was full. Despite his wife’s skepticism, they scraped money together and bought the property — what Firoz called his “five-star motel” — and watched as it thrived. 

The parking lot stayed full for a time. Too full. And the family started using the vacant parcel of land next door for additional spots. 

airdrie contamination gas station
Zubeda Jessa and her family have spent decades trying to navigate their way through a complicated process to clean up their land, long ago contaminated by a neighbouring gas station. The gas station is now owned by Suncor. Photo: Karl Lee / The Narwhal

Zubeda remembers it as a time of laughter. 

“​​He was excited,” she says of her husband. “And we were so excited that we bought this motel.”

One night a few years later, a fence went up around the vacant property that served as overflow parking and the family soon made an offer for the land, which was owned by Petro-Canada. They needed the parking spaces and soon envisioned a liquor store and bottle depot on the property as the province moved to privatize alcohol sales in the early ’90s. 

It wasn’t long after, as crews got to work digging to lay the new foundation for the liquor store, that the stench of oil came up through the ground. 

Provincial environmental regulations prevented the Jessas from building in that soil and they faced a tough decision. Firoz and his wife didn’t know what to do. Their English wasn’t strong and they knew nothing about contaminated earth. They listened to those who offered advice and they set about cleaning up their land. Nobody told them the polluter should foot the bill.

A consultant’s report from that work in 1994 says the stench from the contamination “was so strong that all the people standing a short distance away from the excavation could not tolerate it and got dizzy.”

Exposure to petroleum hydrocarbons and chemicals including benzene, toluene and xylenes can have serious health consequences — including cancer and neurological impacts — at high concentrations. That exposure can take place through consumption of contaminated water or inhalation. In the Jessas’ case, there has been no documented link between the contaminated soil and health impacts, but that hasn’t quelled their concerns.

The family hauled out what Zubeda says was 89 double-dump-truck loads of contaminated soil from the site — 2,470 tons, according to the consultant’s report. They laid a barrier in the ground and then another 89 double-dump-trucks hauled in clean dirt to fill the hole. They paid for all of it. 

“We were living in a house in Calgary … so we had to sell that house,” Zubeda says. “We sold that house without making profit, for whatever we could get, so we can finish this.” 

The family moved into the motel.

A plan in the early 1990s to convert the Horseman into either an Econolodge or Days Inn franchise faltered when the chains wanted an assessment and found the property was contaminated with the same plume that lurked under the store, Zubeda says. The family lost a lot of money making plans that were worthless, she adds. 

Now their motel, advertising rooms for $59, mostly caters to monthly renters. The satellite dishes still perched on its roof are missing panels and the sign beckoning travellers along the highway has already gone from outdated to retro chic. 

The family can’t get financing to fix up their properties. Suncor, they say, won’t buy them out and nobody else would offer money for the contaminated land. They fear the Calgary-based energy giant is just trying to wait them out. 

They’re tired of waiting.

Cleanup at Airdrie site remains stalled 

The family’s lawsuit against Petro-Canada, first launched in 1995, was put on hold as the two sides entered a standstill agreement and negotiations dragged on. Petro-Canada was founded as a federal Crown corporation in 1975, opening to gradual privatization in the early 1990s. At the time of the Jessas’ lawsuit it remained a fraction federally owned. Suncor purchased Petro-Canada in a multibillion dollar deal announced in March 2009.

In August 2021, the family served notice that it would terminate the standstill agreement and restart the proceedings if Suncor didn’t negotiate. Their lawyer says discussions are ongoing.

Suncor declined an interview for this story, but sent a written statement that says it 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 at this site,” Mita Adesanya, a Suncor spokesperson, wrote in an email.

“We are currently working with Alberta Environment on the 2022 plan for remediation.”

That marks a departure from a 1995 statement of defence and then an amended statement of defence and counterclaim filed by Petro-Canada in 1999 as part of the Jessa suit. In that statement, it denied any contamination flowed from its gas station, and denied knowing about contamination on the parcel that it acquired in 1986 that was previously home to an old Gulf gas station.

Petro-Canada argued on the basis of caveat emptor — buyer beware — when it came to the contamination and said the Jessas bought the land while agreeing to be responsible for any environmental contamination and cleanup. It argued the Jessas were equally negligent for not doing a proper investigation prior to purchase and development. 

The company said the lands were “suitable for use as a parking lot, the purpose intended by the plaintiff at the time the plaintiff purchased the lands.”

In its counterclaim, Petro-Canada asked the court for a declaration absolving it of any liability and requesting that the family pay for its legal costs.

The standstill agreement followed and in the 25 years since, steps have been taken to clean up the site. 

airdrie gas station contamination horseman hotel Suncor aerial Petro-Canada
An aerial shot shows the gas station and the motel and liquor store in the background. While the land under the Jessas’ liquor store was contaminated by a leaking underground storage tank at the gas station, there are no records of contamination at nearby residential properties. Contaminated soil can result in exposure to petroleum hydrocarbons and chemicals including benzene, toluene and xylenes. Photo: Karl Lee / The Narwhal

According to a report from an environmental company working for Suncor, the company conducted its own excavation of contaminated soil in 2010 — one year after it bought out Petro-Canada — when it removed 2,736 tons from the properties. It also injected oxygen into the earth to help speed along the cleanup.

Conditions at the site appeared to improve from that work, according to assessment reports. But even the latest report, prepared for Suncor by environmental monitoring company Parsons in May 2020, showed levels of petroleum hydrocarbons in one groundwater monitoring well north of the motel that exceeded provincial residential guidelines.

A 2006 analysis of site conditions, conducted by an environmental consultant for Petro-Canada, also showed levels of benzene — a known carcinogen found in petrochemicals — and other petroleum hydrocarbons exceeded soil guidelines at that time. Groundwater was infused with benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene above guidelines, the analysis found, though levels of these toxins have since declined.

Suncor did not respond to follow-up questions regarding the specifics of the remediation plans for 2022 or regarding its position on the Petro-Canada statement of defence. For the past few years, the plans have only included monitoring and sampling. 

The saga of the Horseman Motel and Liquor Store is not an isolated incident. 

Gas stations part of a larger problem of leaking Alberta oil and gas sites

The impact of contaminated land on families and urban communities is not as well known in Alberta as that of orphaned oil and gas wells

But every once in a while a case bubbles up into the public consciousness: the Gas Plus spill in Calgary’s Bowness neighbourhood that leached 9,000 litres — enough to fuel almost 200 Honda Civics — into surrounding residential soil in 2010 and sat in limbo for years before the province took over cleanup; the decades of contamination from the Lynnwood Ridge refinery that wiped a whole neighbourhood from the map in southeast Calgary in 2001. 

Suncor is currently dealing with a historic leak in northwest Calgary that has spread under the wealthy community of Houndsfield Heights-Briar Hill. Unlike the Jessas’ contamination, that leak is the subject of an environmental protection order issued by the province and requires regular updates and communication with the affected community. 

Leaking underground tanks from gas stations are a problem across Alberta — affecting everything from property values to water to agriculture and human health —  but the extent of it is difficult to quantify. 

Alberta, like most places, distinguishes between brownfields — old commercial sites that could have contamination — and contaminated sites, where there are known issues. But there is no central repository of data about either, including leaking gas station tanks. 

The Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, which changed its name in November to Alberta Municipalities, says there were 1,700 brownfield sites in Alberta, according to its latest estimate based on member community responses to a survey from 10 years ago. Some of those will be contaminated, some will not. 

The majority of the sites impacting its member communities are gas stations. In a 2014 survey about brownfields and which types communities were grappling with, just over 25 per cent were gas stations, by far the largest category. 

The next three categories also dealt with petroleum products: chemical and petroleum warehouses or storage; automotive repair shops and dealers; or establishments selling oil, gas or chemicals.

Alberta’s Ministry of Environment and Parks, which regulates the  cleanup of former industrial lands and contaminated lands, did not acknowledge The Narwhal’s requests for information. Ministry spokesperson Tom McMillan stopped responding to both repeated emails and phone calls from The Narwhal after an initial response to clarify what information was being asked for. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator, which oversees contamination from oil and gas exploration, lists reported incidents, including leaks, going back to 1975. There are almost 40,000 incidents of varying severity listed, though this does not include contamination stemming from gas stations. 

“The cost is the number one challenge, often these are on sites where the land value is less than the cost to remediate.”

Angela Duncan, interim president of Alberta Municipalities

The only public source of provincial information regarding contamination and inspections of former industrial sites — including those overseen by the regulator — requires input of individual locations to obtain contamination data. There is no easy way to track, identify or highlight problem sites because of the way the government has organized the data on that site. (A freedom of information request for the data resulted in being pointed back to the website.)

A national register of contaminated sites overseen by the federal government lists 1,137 sites in Alberta, but that number includes sites suspected to have contamination and those that have already undergone remediation.

But there are bits of information to point to the scale of the issue. 

The province announced two programs to deal with underground gas station tanks, one in 2000 and a second in 2006. According to a presentation by the government in 2007, 1,091 applicants received funding under that program to remove tanks and potentially deal with contamination. 

In 2007, 717 sites from that program had undergone some form of remediation and a further 245 were approved for additional funding.

The Jessas undertook their remediation long before the programs started.

Alberta Environment and Parks did not respond to repeated requests for confirmation on these numbers or to provide an update on the current inventory of contaminated sites.

Environment Minister Jason Nixon’s office did not respond to several emails and a phone call from The Narwhal asking for comment.

Suncor did not say how many other properties, contaminated by old gas stations, were on its books. 

‘Not a lot of tools in the toolbox’ to deal with contaminated Alberta sites: official

Angela Duncan, the interim president of Alberta Municipalities and the deputy mayor of the small community of Alberta Beach, says brownfields can have a big impact, particularly on small communities. The organization has been trying to get the province to take the problem seriously since 2000.

“The cost is the number one challenge, often these are on sites where the land value is less than the cost to remediate,” she says. 

“The second is that these are often privately owned sites — not all of the time, but more often than not they’re privately owned — and there’s not a lot of tools in the toolbox to force redevelopment.”

Essentially, the only thing a municipality can do is offer tax incentives to landowners in the hopes they’ll clean up and redevelop the land, but the province has so far failed to offer its share of the property tax pie to help. 

Alberta Municipalities wants the province to help fund environmental assessments of brownfields to see if they’re contaminated, remove red-tape barriers for local governments and the private sector to find solutions, develop policies that will deal with old reclamation certificates issued before more stringent environmental rules were in place and match local tax incentives. 

All of those requests were part of a motion that recently passed at the annual Alberta Municipalities convention in mid-November. It was put forward by the town of Calmar, which is struggling under the burden of multiple legacy well sites and potentially contaminated land that it cannot develop. 

airdrie gas station contamination horseman hotel Suncor.
The entrance to the Horseman Motel in Airdrie, which sits on land contaminated by an old gas station. The cost to clean up contaminated soil can be prohibitive for landowners dealing with the problem, and, as in the Jessas’ case, getting the polluter to pay can be a decades-long process. Photo: Karl Lee / The Narwhal

“So, for example, one oil site you’re looking at $25,000 to $50,000 per site,” Duncan says of the costs for an environmental assessment. “And that’s kind of a starting point. I’ve heard of some of these costing up to six figures.” 

Irina Sabau is the managing director of Environmental Diagnostics, which conducts site assessments and remediation in urban areas. She says it was the issue of underground storage tanks that really got businesses like hers going. 

“In the ’90s and 2000s, the Safety Codes Council had a grant out for people that had underground storage tanks to remove it and clean it up,” she says, referring to the independent regulator that oversees safety codes, inspections and permits in the province. “In Alberta, that’s how this environmental assessment industry started moving ahead.”

“It went, of course, hand-in-hand with the fact that the lenders were starting to see the environmental liability around and they started asking for environmental assessments as well.”

Sabau estimates 50 per cent of the work Environmental Diagnostics does is tied to storage tanks. She says depending on the complexity of the contamination on any given site, cleanup can be relatively simple or practically impossible. It can be over quickly or stretch into decades. 

“It can get to a point where risk management is your only solution, but it is an accepted approach under the current guidelines,” Sabau adds.

She would like to see the province step in to provide more support for those struggling with contamination on their properties. 

“I think [the government] should work with owners of contaminated sites a little bit more because they definitely have the tools,” Sabau says. “The one-time owner of a gas station, or a one-time owner that inherited a contaminated property, doesn’t have the tools.”

Cost of dealing with mess more than a million dollars: family 

The Jessa family says the money that comes from monthly rent at the motel, the liquor store and the apartment building goes mostly to operating costs. They’ve taken out a $3 million loan to help pay for the lawsuit and to keep their businesses going. They say they are stressed and treading water and accuse Suncor of stalling over compensation or remediation plans. 

To date, the ordeal has cost them $1.5 million, according to the family. They say they have been let down. 

Answers are few, and the City of Airdrie, citing the ongoing legal dispute, would not answer basic questions, including whether records for the site were destroyed in a fire several decades ago. 

Firoz, who the Jessa family describes as an eternal optimist, died of lung cancer six years ago, struggling with the burden of land he once thought would bring security to his family.

“He was tired,” Zubeda says. “Later on, he was saying that he wanted it to be gone.”

That’s what she wants as well, but she’s not willing to lose everything in the process. 

“We told them, if you buy us out, that’s okay,” Zubeda says from her perch at the liquor store. “They say we’re not going to buy out. We buy out for $0. Okay, thank you. We will fight until we can’t.”

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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