An ongoing issue involving a long buried underground oil tank outside the Wilton Town Green office building has forced Barbara Chopin, the owner of Café Ruche to close the restaurant and exercise studio “indefinitely.” While it’s not officially a permanent closure yet, Chopin fears it might become one, and she calls the situation “heartbreaking.”

She opened the business–a combination of a French-style café serving breakfast, lunch and dinner with a yoga and exercise studio–last January. The café quickly became a popular spot with Wiltonians, and Chopin was looking forward to a long future complete with outdoor dining and a community of regulars. Closing her doors so soon was never even a thought. But with a potential health risk hiding beneath the floors of her restaurant, she can either hold on to the slim hope that the problem can be fixed or consider relocating Café Ruche elsewhere, or closing altogether.

“There was so much energy and thought put into this space, into launching and growing the business. I don’t know that I have the energy to do it again. It took everything for a year, and that was fine because I loved it. At this point, I don’t know–I’m going to need some time to recover,” Chopin says.

What’s that Smell?

What has caused the closure is a problem that started back in April of this year. That’s the first time Chopin said she noticed the smell of heating oil emanating from the back of the restaurant, in the room that serves as a yoga and exercise studio. She notified the building managers, Paragon Realty Group, which manages the building for the Town of Wilton, which owns it.

According to Chopin, Paragon tried to alleviate the issue by venting air out of the studio, but it didn’t take care of the problem. As a result she reduced the number of exercise classes scheduled during May, June and July, but it wasn’t until later in the summer when building management found what they thought was the source of the odor–a very old, 2,000-gallon underground oil tank, that was no longer in use, and according to one excavator’s estimate, was so old there was no record of it. There were also pipes within the building that were found to contain old oil as well.

To correct the problem, workmen removed some of the old pipes behind the wall of the studio while others were cleaned out and subsequently filled with concrete. The oil tank out in front of the building was too large and too close to the building’s wall to remove so it was also cleaned and filled with concrete and any remaining pipe connections were capped off.

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The building managers also took care of remediating the studio, soaking up whatever remaining oil they could from under the flooring. Paragon laid a new floor and fixed the wall and they ran a HEPA filter in the yoga studio for several days to make sure that the residual smell was gone.

“We were all confident that it was going to be ok,” Chopin recalls, and says she tried to look past the impact it had on her business. By that point it was late August, and she’d been forced to close Cafe Ruche’s yoga studio completely for the month of August. She had also held back on promoting the exercise portion of her business during spring–what would have been prime time for the studio which had opened only six months before.

The building managers remediated at no cost to Chopin, “except,” she adds, “for the fact that my business was closed down.”

But through early fall, business returned to relatively normal. That was, until just a few weeks ago, when the smell returned..

“We thought we had it remediated but apparently not. At this point we don’t know where it’s coming from. When we first did remediation we remediated the wall and the floor. The wall seems to have held completely, but the floor is still emitting a strong smell,” Chopin says, adding, “We don’t know if it’s coming from right here, where we remediated, or if that actually held and it’s coming from somewhere else but it’s trapped under the plastic barrier under the floor.”

Enter the Health Department

On normal round, the Wilton Health Department’s sanitarian stopped into Cafe Ruche this past Saturday, Nov. 21. Just from the strong and pervasive odor, he advised Chopin to close. Director of Health Barry Bogle visited Monday morning and agreed, telling Chopin to close “until further notice.”

Chopin is concerned for her customers as well as for her staff.

“We don’t know that it’s injurious, but obviously it has potential to be. Until we know, and even if not, even standing here in the room with you I start to get a headache and not feel great. Whether it’s injurious temporarily from a headache or sore throat, it’s still not healthy,” she says.

That means more tests and trying to figure out the mystery.

“For now, we’re going to continue to try to ventilate it as much as possible, so the workers who have to come in to examine the situation don’t get sick.” The landlord came in last Wednesday and according to Chopin, they told her they’re going to drill core samples into the slab underneath the building this week. “To see if the slab is saturated.”

If that is what they find, then what for Cafe Ruche?  “Who knows?” The restaurant and studio are the only spaces that are affected most obviously, and it may mean the end for Chopin’s business. Unable to quantify her losses at this point, she can only, resignedly say, “Lot’s of money.”

“I’m still numb. It has two edges. It’s been going on since April, and I felt really good about having it concluded. The minute it reared its ugly head again, then I just started to get really angry about it. We’ve worked so hard to try to put it to bed, to have it emerge again is pretty heartbreaking.”

Does she hold out hope?

“Paragon was very cooperative during the remediation process, they took all of the responsibility for that. It was all on their nickel. We’ll see what happens going forward. I don’t have any way to predict right now. I hope they will be. At this point the place isn’t habitable, in a safe way, the way it is.”

Chopin adds that temporary fixes aren’t really fixes. “We could ventilate it massively, but that’s not the solution. We need to find the source.” When it’s pointed out how interesting it is that even though she’s a tenant, and one who has already lost so much, and will likely not see her business recover, she still keeps using the word, “We,” Chopin nods. “Yes, they need to find the source. It used to be ‘we.’ Now it’s ‘they.’ Because I’m not here anymore.”

GOOD Morning Wilton placed calls to David Wright, the property manager at Paragon, as well as to Barry Boggle, the Director of Health for the town of Wilton for comment, but neither returned the calls by press time.