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Earthquakes Caused by Wastewater Disposal
People throughout Oklahoma and parts of Kansas are suffering through human-induced earthquakes that are causing significant damage and property loss. The source of the devastation: the injection of wastewater under pressure deep into the ground.
Recent governmental and scientific studies have shown a link between the earthquakes occurring in Oklahoma and southern Kansas and the pressurized injection of wastewater deep into the ground. They warn that earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.0 could occur because of this continued wastewater injection. Despite this evidence, the oil and gas companies are showing no sign of stopping this business practice that is putting families at risk.
Weitz & Luxenberg understands these earthquakes are human-induced and must be stopped. It is not our firm’s intention to shut down the oil and gas industry, which is vital to Oklahoma’s economy. Instead, we want to ensure that it is an environmentally sound neighbor.
Our firm leads and handles major litigations on numerous environmental disasters across the nation. In our 30-year history, we have helped 56,000 clients, winning $17 billion on their behalf. We also have years of earthquake litigation experience, and we are committed to stopping human-made earthquakes by taking federal action to reduce wastewater injection.
We’ve teamed up with environmental activist Erin Brockovich to help affected residents and business owners get the compensation they deserve and need. Together, we’re working to curb the wastewater injection that’s triggering the increased number and magnitude of earthquakes in the central U.S.
How Wastewater Injection Induces Earthquakes
Injecting fluid underground can induce earthquakes. That fact was established decades ago by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the sole science agency for the Department of the Interior.
In Oklahoma, for example, the total volume of production waste injected into ground wells shot up 81% from 2009 to 2014. Meanwhile, the rate of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or higher increased from 1.5 per year prior to 2008 to the 2015 average rate of 2.5 per day, a rate that is approximately 600 times the historical background.
Not only has the amount of earthquakes increased dramatically over the last several years, but the severity of the quakes has also increased.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) said in a 2015 statement that it “considers it very likely that the majority of recent earthquakes, particularly those in central and north-central Oklahoma, are triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells.”
Fracking & Wastewater Disposal Processes
To start, oil and gas companies mix and pressurize massive amounts of water, sand, and chemicals, then inject them deep underground. The injected mixture strikes targeted subsurface rock formations with enough force to split them open. This releases trapped deposits of oil and natural gas, which the companies then extract, refine, and sell. This drilling technique is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Generally, fracking generates huge volumes of wastewater known as “flowback” and “produced water.” This fluid may contain the injected chemicals and naturally occurring materials such as brines, metals, radionuclides, and hydrocarbons.
To dispose of the wastewater, some companies use high pressure to inject the wastewater into deep wells, known as injection wells. These injection wells typically are far below where the oil and gas reserves are located and near fault lines. Unfortunately, injecting wastewater into the ground destabilizes the earth beneath your town and your property, particularly along fault lines.
The result: earthquakes of record-breaking size that wreak havoc on nearby communities.
Scientists believe that the lubrication created by massive volumes of wastewater injected at high pressure, together with thousands of resulting small, shallow earthquakes, have reactivated fault lines that were dormant for millennia, causing swarms of earthquakes.
In many cases, injection wells used by oil and gas companies are near fault lines capable of major tremors. When wastewater disposal occurs along fault lines, it can set off earthquakes.
Earthquakes & Property Damage
It doesn’t take a large earthquake to cause damage to your home, business, or commercial building. Even mild tremors can do harm, especially if they happen often.
Human-induced earthquakes are causing significant property damage. Yet, the oil and gas industry continues its wastewater injection operations without being held accountable.
The structures most vulnerable to quake damage caused by wastewater injection are those that lack adequate reinforcement. However, in some instances, even well-reinforced structures can be damaged.
Damage from seismic activity can include:
- Cracks in foundations
- Cracks and shifting in walls and windows
- Fallen structures such as chimneys and steeples
- Warped or buckled roofs or walls
- Bricks tumbling down from exteriors and interiors
- Ruptures of underground pipes
- Buckling of sidewalks and driveways
- Land subsidence (cave-ins, sinkholes)
Many businesses also have suffered economic losses due to having their business interrupted from earthquakes and accompanying damage. Some victims have even sustained personal injuries from falling debris during earthquakes. Such disasters can also take away the sense of safety a person is supposed to feel in his or her own home.
There is also a risk of infrastructure being damaged and causing catastrophic environmental disaster. An oil tank farm in Cushing, Oklahoma, for example, is one of the largest oil storage facilities in the world. Earthquakes can cause these tanks and underground piping to rupture, spilling toxic substances into the air and water.
Aftershocks Cause Damage, Too
Aftershocks are earthquakes that follow the largest shock of an earthquake sequence. They can continue for weeks, months, or years. In general, the bigger the initial shock, the bigger and more numerous the aftershocks, and the longer they will continue.
For example, aftershocks from a November 2016 5.0-magnitude earthquake in Cushing continued to cause damage in the area in the month that followed. This included a 3.3-magnitude earthquake, 4.0-magnitude earthquake, and 3.6-magnitude tremor.
The earthquake sequence in Cushing caused substantial structural damage to many buildings in the downtown area, some of which are over 100 years old. Cushing City Manager Steve Spears said at the time that the earthquake damaged 40 to 50 buildings, including historic buildings where residents live and work.
Unfortunately, the November earthquake was Oklahoma’s third quake that year with a magnitude of 5.0 or greater.
Human-Induced Earthquakes in Oklahoma
Since 2009, the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma has risen sharply because of the increased volume and pressure of wastewater injection.
Records show that prior to increased wastewater injection, there was an average of 24 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 and larger per year in Oklahoma. From 2009 to 2014, however, the rate steadily increased, averaging 193 per year and spiking in 2014 to 688 earthquakes. That rate again jumped in 2015 to 912.5 earthquakes per year.
In 2016, earthquakes likely induced by wastewater injection that occurred between February and November alone included:
- 5.8-magnitudeAn earthquake that shook Pawnee, Oklahoma, was the state’s largest recorded earthquake to date.
- 5.1-magnitudeThe third-largest earthquake in recent Oklahoma record, a magnitude 5.1 event, struck northwest of Fairview.
- 5.0-magnitudeDozens of buildings sustained substantial damage after a 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck Cushing, an Oklahoma town that’s home to one of the world’s key oil hubs.
- 4.3-magnitudeA 4.3-magnitude earthquake that struck northern Oklahoma was widely felt throughout parts of Kansas.
- 3.5-magnitudeA 3.5-magnitude earthquake struck northern Oklahoma, hitting the same spot where a record-setting temblor was centered a month earlier.
Federal Action to Reduce Wastewater Injection
The only way to stop these human-induced earthquakes is through action to reduce wastewater injection. That’s why Weitz & Luxenberg has filed a federal declaratory and injunctive claim under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
In this claim, Weitz & Luxenberg, together with Public Justice and the Poynter Law Group, is seeking a declaration that wastewater injection is an imminent and substantial danger to public health and the environment. We are also seeking an order requiring operators to immediately and substantially reduce the amount of wastewater being disposed of underground.
Compensation for Earthquake Victims
Powerful earthquakes have become a regular part of life for many Oklahomans in recent years. The quakes and their aftershocks have continued to damage property in the area, and residents have been left wondering whether the next quake will be bigger than the last.
Communities do not need to sit back and accept increasingly intense earthquakes as the new norm. Oklahoma’s highest court ruled in July 2015 that an individual can sue oil companies for personal injuries and property damage sustained during earthquakes that scientists say were caused by wastewater injection.
Weitz & Luxenberg has already filed several claims against wastewater disposal facilities, including class action and individual lawsuits in federal courts and state courts in Pawnee County, Payne County, and Lincoln County in Oklahoma. In May 2018, our Lincoln County class action was certified by the state court. Our clients are suing due to damages they suffered after a series of earthquakes in the vicinity of Prague, Oklahoma. This 2011 sequence of earthquakes included one of a 5.7 magnitude. Our firm is seeking compensation for homeowners and business owners for any property damage.
The lawsuits seek compensation for:
- Property damage caused by earthquakes
- Economic loss from business interruption
- Diminution of property value
- Emotional distress
Contact an Experienced Environmental Attorney Today
Weitz & Luxenberg understands it’s incredibly unfair that homeowners are suffering losses and damage to their homes from human-induced earthquakes.
If you have been injured, or your home or business has been damaged by these earthquakes, we would be honored to help you seek compensation.
For a free legal consultation, please call or fill out a form to speak with one of our experienced environmental attorneys.