Geologists in Ohio have for the first time linked earthquakes in a geologic formation deep under the Appalachians to hydraulic fracturing, leading the state to issue new permit conditions Friday in certain areas that are among the nation's strictest.
CLEVELAND - An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation found some earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio may have been prevented.
"I think more monitoring could have been done," said John Armbruster, a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, who has studied earthquakes for more than 40 years.
Armbruster said more thorough tracking of Ohio's seismic activity would have alerted officials that a new injection well was triggering earthquakes in the area. Earthquakes eventually subside after high-pressure fluid injections into a well are halted, according to Armbruster.
"If more seismographs had been taken to Youngstown three months after this well started operating, we could have seen what was happening," Armbruster said. "If this well had been shut down nine months earlier, maybe the earthquakes associated with this well would be all over now."
WEB EXTRAS: To view a map of the state's injection wells, click here: http://on.wews.com/w4WoCc
The injection well, known as Northstar number 1, and owned by D&L Energy, started operating at its location on Ohio Works Drive in December 2010. Three months later, the first earthquakes ever recorded in Youngstown, started shaking the ground.
"The odds are very slim this is a coincidence," Armbruster said.
By the end of 2011, 11 earthquakes were recorded in Youngstown, according to the Ohio Seismic Network, which monitors earthquake activity in Ohio. The most serious was a 4.0 magnitude earthquake recorded on New Year's Eve.
It damaged some homes and businesses in the area, according to State Rep. Bob Hagan, who fought for a recent moratorium on new injection wells in Ohio.
"We were sitting here and all of a sudden, we heard a pop and, like, a boom," said Newton Falls resident Christina Hoffman. She said the earthquake left damage to her floors, walls, doors, siding and roof. "It looked like someone had taken an accordion and just smashed it together."
Injection wells are used to dispose of wastewater from oil and gas exploration. Energy companies push a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into rock to break it open and extract natural gas.
The process is known as fracking. The fracking wastewater is then disposed of by pumping it as high pressure into an injection well dug deep underground.
Armbruster said if an injection well is located close to a fault, fluid from the well can seep into the fault, cause it to slip and trigger an earthquake.
Injection wells history of triggering earthquakes
"Among scientists, it's been accepted since the 1960s that injection wells can cause earthquakes," Armbruster said.
The classic case: Several reports by the United State Geological Survey concluded an injection well triggered a series of earthquakes in Denver, Colorado in the mid-1960s. A few years later, a government experiment in Rangely, Colorado concluded "earthquake activity could be turned off and on" when scientists controlled fluid injections into a well near a fault.
A 1990 USGS report linked injected wells to earthquakes in Japan, Canada and nine U.S. states, including Ohio. In 1987, Ohio scientists blamed 13 earthquakes recorded in Ashtabula County on an injection well.
"At first, you didn't know what it was. But, then you knew. It was an earthquake," said Clarence Tussel, an Ashtabula County resident who remembers the earthquakes rattling the area.
Ohio seismic monitoring
In spite of that history, Ohio has not changed how it monitors seismic activity since the number of injection wells has increased in the state.
There are 26 seismographs in the state. We found many are located nowhere near Ohio's 176 injection wells. The state told us there was no need for additional monitoring.
"The probability of earthquakes caused by injection operations is extremely low. It's not that it doesn't occur, it's just the occurrence of it is extremely low," said Rick Simmers, the Chief of the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
However, the number of injection wells has increased in the state. We found there was a 383 percent increase in permit applications from 2009 to 2011.
Injection well moratorium
Simmers shied away from linking the earthquakes to the well during a January interview with NewsChannel5, but shut down the injection well Dec. 30. He said the state will study the connection between the well and the earthquakes.
"If there's any doubt in our mind that indeed that this injection well did cause it (the earthquakes) or likely caused it, then we will not allow the well to be used again," he said.
The state also issued a moratorium on new permits until it revises its rules and regulations for injection wells.
Armbruster agreed it is unlikely an injection well will trigger an earthquake, since there are hundreds of thousands of wells in the United States, and only a few have been linked to earthquakes. He also said Ohio's geology makes it unlikely
the state will ever experience a serious earthquake.
However, Armbruster said it is a small expense to add more seismographs around the state to make sure no new wells are sitting near faults.
"The risk of a larger earthquake is small, but the consequences of that could be serious," he said.
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