What’s under that Petro-Canada station, you say?

In our latest newsletter, we look at how one family’s attempt to make ends meet was undercut by a dirty mess of someone else’s making. The decades-long fight shows how Alberta is leaving residents and municipalities exposed

Firoz Jessa just wanted financial security for his family.

It was 1987 in Calgary, the city his family had long called home after emigrating from Tanzania. The Calgary Olympics were just around the corner and the nearby town of Airdrie was thriving. Firoz saw an opportunity: he bought the bustling Horseman Motel just off the Queen Elizabeth II Highway, 20 kilometres north of the big city.

Things were going well and so, in the early 1990s, he decided to buy the empty patch of land next door to the Petro-Canada station to build a liquor store and expand the family business.

That’s when the trouble started. It turned out the soil was infused with gasoline spilled from the Petro-Canada station and an old Gulf gas station tank years earlier. The land under their motel? Also contaminated.

What followed was a decades-long legal battle to get Petro-Canada to pay to clean up the  mess. The Jessas didn’t have enough money to decontaminate the site, so they sold their Calgary home to cover some of the costs.

Firoz passed away six years ago of lung cancer. The contamination on the property still lingers.

“I am 74, I have to get retirement,” Zubeda Jessa told Alberta reporter Drew Anderson from behind the liquor store counter. “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.”

The Jessas are far from the only people whose property lies on contaminated land. The trouble is, we have no idea just how deep the problem runs — but it could be well north of 1,000 sites. And it’s a problem that affects not only property values, but water sources, agriculture and human health.

“There is no way to know the precise extent of contamination in the province and how many people it affects,” Drew explained to me. “The Alberta government has no central database that clearly outlines which sites it’s aware of, and is either unable or incapable of providing that information.”

Drew Anderson of The Narwhal standing in a grassy field

“That leaves citizens or municipalities to try and find ways to identify sites, which can be costly, and to try and find ways to have them cleaned up, which can cost much more.”

Frustrated by inaction, municipalities across the province are calling on the Alberta government to fund environmental assessments and provide assistance when it turns out plots are contaminated. 

Provincial support would be a huge boon for families like the Jessas, who’ve had to take out a $3 million loan to pay for the lawsuit and keep their businesses up and running. Suncor did some remediation work on the site in 2010, shortly after it purchased Petro-Canada, but a 2020 assessment showed groundwater pollution in the area still exceeded provincial standards.

Suncor says it takes its environmental obligations at the site seriously, and is working on 2022 remediation plans, though it’s not clear what those plans are. 

Zubeda says she just wants the ordeal to end — but not at the cost of losing everything.

“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.”

Take care and don’t spoil your soil,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience

The Narwhal in the world

Justin Trudeau and Steven Guilbeault at COP26 in Glasgow.
Photo: Adam Scotti / Prime Minister’s Office

When we published our Q&A with federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, we didn’t exactly expect our publication to be caught in the middle of a political storm.

But that’s what happened when Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole seized on a quote from the piece to contend that Guilbeault has plans to phase out all fossil fuel use within 18 months. What was clear from the wider context of the piece, and as Guilbeault later clarified on Twitter, is that the minister was referring to the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies.

“It’s obvious what he meant to say,” Toronto Star columnist Althia Raj notes in this piece. “What troubles me most,” she writes, “is O’Toole is clearly aware this is not what Guilbeault intended to say. And yet, he has no qualms capitalizing on it and sharing and fuelling misinformation.”

For more about Guilbeault’s (real) plans for the next 18 months, go here to read his full interview with reporter Caitlin Stall-Paquet.

This week in The Narwhal

‘We need to learn to do things faster’: Canada’s new environment minister talks climate — and compromise

Environment minister Steven Guilbeault

By Caitlin Stall-Paquet

From overseeing 2030 targets to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, Steven Guilbeault has been tasked with one of the largest to-do lists of the entire federal cabinet. The environment minister says he’ll act quickly, even if it means not getting exactly what he wants. Read more.

Opinion: The ‘new’ face of environmental racism in Quebec

Greenpeace, caribou, Quebec

By Adrienne Jérôme and Christy Ferguson

The provincial government’s lack of action on caribou recovery jeopardizes Indigenous Rights and lives. Read more.

Opinion: Saskatchewan government’s lack of action is an implicit denial of climate change

silhouettes of trees against orange sky

By Trevor Herriot and Cathy Holtslander

As Canadians confronted the realities of climate change in 2021 — from heat domes to floods to fires — the province was making promises to increase oil production and double the growth of the forestry industry. Read more.

What we’re reading

Hakai article: The Great Bear Rainforest’s Great Big Whales
Globe article: Climate change is putting more girls in Nepal at risk of child marriage

gif of perplexed cat

When you’re perplexed after seeing your words get misconstrued. Tell your elected leaders they can get straight facts by signing up for our newsletter.

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The Narwhal’s newly minted Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.