The Airdrie family that has owned the Horseman Motel for more than three decades recently notified Suncor Energy they are cancelling an eight-year standstill agreement and resuming legal action.
A press release sent out by Blackbird Strategies, the firm assisting the Jessa family in getting their story out, said they are pursuing legal action to ensure Suncor finally remediates long-standing below-ground contamination that is present on the motel property.
“Suncor has by no means adequately addressed the environmental contamination left behind and damages to the Jessa family,” said Rangi Jeerakathil of MLT Aikins LLP, who is representing the Jessa family. “We are requesting a meeting with Suncor to discuss settlement of this matter, prior to bringing an application for summary judgment.”
According to the press release, when the late Firoz Jessa purchased the motel property in 1987, a language barrier and a deal seemingly signed in good faith led to the former property owner neglecting to inform Jessa the Petro Canada gas station across the street had left hydrocarbon contamination on the motel grounds and surrounding properties.
“Our dad came to Canada as a refugee,” said Nahid Jessa, the motel owner’s son. “He and my mom worked day and night to purchase this motel so our family could live the Canadian dream.”
Nahid claimed the long-standing contamination has, in a sense, held the family “hostage” for decades. The family had come to Canada from east Africa in the 1970s.
“Since the 1990s, our family business has languished, unable to expand and become what our parents had dreamed,” Nahid said. “We are only asking that Suncor do what is right, and that is to clean up its own mess.”
Suncor has been aware of the contamination since 1994, the Blackbird Strategies press release claimed.
Nahid said owning a property on contaminated lands has made it impossible to secure financing to move ahead with modern upgrades and renovations.
In 2008, Suncor agreed to a Remedial Action Plan for the motel grounds but according to the family, has so far failed to fulfil many of the obligations set out in the plan.
“Alberta Environment has made multiple requests for Suncor to act on, or update, its Remedial Action Plan, but Suncor has consistently chosen to delay and avoid reasonable and timely remediation of the property,” the release stated.
While operating the motel and adjacent liquor store remains a family effort, the majority of the work is undertaken by Jessa’s wife Zubeda, who is now 75 years old. The press release from the legal firm argued Zubeda has made “particularly significant financial sacrifices,” such as selling the family home and temporarily living in the motel in the 1990s, to help pay legal expenses.
“Recently, she has had to sell other assets to continue this fight for justice that has cost the family over $1.5 million to date,” the release stated.
Nahid said the pending legal dispute could cost the family another $1 million.
“This is a real David and Goliath story,” he said. “My mom has sold off properties to continue to pay lawyers. This has been one of the big barriers and why we haven’t pursued legal action earlier.”
When reached for comment, representatives of Suncor issue a statement to the Airdrie City View that said the company 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,” the statement reads. “We are in contact with Alberta Environment and are open to working with the Jessas to reach a satisfactory outcome.”
Nahid said the statement is partly true, as the company has been working with the family on the site.
“Like I said, it has been 30 years, so they have been dragging it out,” he said. “They haven’t been cleaning it up over the last 12 years, they have only been monitoring it. There hasn’t been any work done since the early 2000s.”
Attempts to continue conversations have been turned down, according to Nahid.
“They have had more than enough time to clean up the site,” he said. “They can clearly see a family is struggling here, but they just keep sweeping us under the rug.”
Nahid said he hopes Suncor does the right thing. To him and his family, finding the best resolution possible through the courts is what they are hoping for.
“We want to have a clean property, not have all these legal bills, and to move on,” Nahid said. “Hopefully we can continue on to enjoy our lives.”
According to Nahid, as his mother has dealt with the issue for more than 30 years, the family hopes legal action will finally bring their contentious relationship with Suncor to a close.
“We want the site cleaned so we can move on in our lives,” he said. “We want it cleaned in a way that we can actually move forward without feeling like we are taking a risk.”
The Horseman Motel is located on 3 Avenue NE, on the west side of Edmonton Trail.