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Weitz & Luxenberg is continuing to fight for Oklahomans affected by the industrial deep disposal that is causing earthquakes in Oklahoma, rumbling the earth beneath their homes and businesses, knocking over historic towers, and rattling houses to the point that parts of them fall or crack.

Because of these human-created earthquakes, people have been injured; foundations, basements, and walls have been cracked; and innocent citizens fear for their safety on a daily basis.

The earthquakes haven’t stopped shaking the ground, and Weitz & Luxenberg has not stopped our steady pursuit of justice.

Even after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed in federal court relating to the quakes, Weitz & Luxenberg is persevering in its fight for citizens through class actions and individual litigations making their way through state courts. We have also filed a lawsuit in Tribal Court on behalf of the Pawnee Nation over damages to tribe property caused by fracking-related earthquakes.

The advancing lawsuits assert that Oklahoma’s thousands of earthquakes in recent years have been caused by the oil and gas industry’s disposal of wastewater resulting from fracking, which involves pumping pressurized fluids into rock and other formations to force the release of oil and gas. This has made Oklahoma the most seismically active state in the continental U.S.

Wastewater from fracking is injected back deep into the earth under extreme pressure in injection wells. This process has awakened long dormant fault lines, causing earthquakes that have shaken the earth in Oklahoma since at least 2011.

The human-caused earthquakes have caused significant damage to the Pawnee Nation’s important, historic governmental buildings, which are more than 100 years old, appear on the national historic registry, and are used every day by the Nation for government and administrative functions, community meetings, cultural events, and education for the Nation’s 3,489 members.

Although new regulations appear to have reduced the prevalence of human-made earthquakes in the state, there remains a “significant likelihood” for damaging quakes, according to a prediction from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In fact, the severity of the earthquakes has increased in recent years. The year 2016 saw three earthquakes measuring more than 5.0 in magnitude, including the record-breaking 5.8 magnitude quake in the Pawnee area.

Weitz& Luxenberg understands and respects the importance of oil and gas to the economy and well-being of Oklahoma, and has no intention of interfering with that vital role. We encourage and demand, however, that the industry use responsible methods that do not risk the health and safety of citizens, which will have the added benefit of protecting the industry’s ability to operate profitably.

Magnitude of Earthquakes on the Rise

Earthquakes in Oklahoma increased from annual totals of about 167 before 2009 to more than 5,800 in 2015. And the magnitude of the quakes has also gone up, with the number of quakes rated 3.5 and above going up 50-fold.

In January 2016, the Oklahoma Geological Survey imposed rules that it says reduced wastewater injecting in the central part of the state by about 40%.

After that, the rate of earthquakes decreased in 2016, and this led researchers to forecast lower seismic activity rates for 2017. Yet they also expect the activity to continue to be significantly higher than seismic activity experienced in Oklahoma before 2009.

The USGS estimates 3.5 million people live and work in areas of the central and eastern United States, including Oklahoma, where there is a significant chance of damaging earthquakes caused by humans in 2017, in addition to another 500,000 people facing a significant chance of damage from naturally occurring quakes.

And even more worrying: Even though the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma appears to be going down, the intensity of earthquakes is on the rise. The state experienced its largest earthquake ever recorded on Sept. 3, 2016, when a magnitude 5.8 quake shook the ground northwest of Pawnee. Cushing experienced a 5.0 magnitude earthquake in November 2016 that damaged historical downtown buildings and residences. The state also saw the greatest number of large earthquakes ever in 2016.

In the area around the Pawnee, there were at least 41 quakes of at least 2.5 magnitude and as high as 3.6 before the end of September 2016, with 11 more earthquakes in October and November 2016. One quake on Nov. 2, 2016, was rated as 4.5 in magnitude. These quakes disrupted or suspended normal, daily, administrative, educational, and cultural activities in some Pawnee buildings. Understandably, the continuous ground shaking has rattled the nerves of members and leaders of the Nation, as well as other residents in the Pawnee area.

As Weitz & Luxenberg said in our lawsuit, “The Nation has experienced encroachment for hundreds of years from enemy tribes and white settlers. This time, the encroachment is environmental, perpetrated by the defendants through their wastewater injection operations, which have damaged and interfered with the use, enjoyment, value, and possible structural integrity of the Nation’s property.

The Sept. 3, 2016, quake was found by government authorities to be caused by wastewater disposal activities. It was “not an act of God,” Weitz & Luxenberg asserted in a class action lawsuit in state court. “Instead, the defendants’ pollution of the environment caused it and the other earthquakes that followed.”

USGS: Millions At Risk for Damaging Quakes

Between 1980 and 2000, the USGS says Oklahoma had an annual average of about two earthquakes greater than or equal to magnitude 2.7, which is when the ground can be felt shaking. By 2014, that number was 4,000 and it was 2,500 in 2016, a year in which 21 quakes were rated 4.0 or higher and three were greater than 5.0.

In fact, the chance for damaging earthquakes in central Oklahoma is now comparable to the rate of naturally occurring quakes in high-hazard parts of California, according to the USGS, which says there is a potential for significant damage as a consequence of these quakes.

“The forecast for induced and natural earthquakes in 2017 is hundreds of times higher than before induced seismicity rates rapidly increased around 2008,” said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project. “Millions still face a significant chance of experiencing damaging earthquakes, and this could increase or decrease with industry practices, which are difficult to anticipate.”

Weitz & Luxenberg is asking state courts to force the parties responsible for that record-breaking quake, the 5.0 magnitude earthquake in Cushing, and others, to compensate the victims of their actions and to pay punitive damages to help deter that kind of conduct in the future.

With our passion for environmental justice and our expertise in environmental litigation, Weitz and Luxenberg will do everything possible to ensure that Oklahoma citizens get the help they need.

  1. U.S. Geological Survey. (2017, March 1). New USGS Maps Identify Potential Ground-Shaking Hazards in 2017. Retrieved from https://www.usgs.gov/news/new-usgs-maps-identify-potential-ground-shaking-hazards-2017
  2. Regan, M.D. (2016, August 28). Why is Oklahoma seeing fewer earthquakes? Scientists point to new oil & gas rules. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/earthquakes-oklahoma-wastewater-oil/
  3. Petersen, M.D. et al. (2017, March 1). 2017 One-Year-Seismic-Hazard Forecast for the Central and Eastern United States from Induced and Natural Earthquakes. Retrieved from http://srl.geoscienceworld.org/content/early/2017/02/24/0220170005
  4. U.S. Geological Survey. (2017, March 1). New USGS Maps Identify Potential Ground-Shaking Hazards in 2017. Retrieved from https://www.usgs.gov/news/new-usgs-maps-identify-potential-ground-shaking-hazards-2017
  5. U.S. Geological Survey. (2016, September 3). M 5.8 - 14km NW of Pawnee, Oklahoma. Retrieved from https://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/eventpage/us10006jxs#executive
  6. U.S. Geological Survey. (2017, March 1). New USGS Maps Identify Potential Ground-Shaking Hazards in 2017. Retrieved from https://www.usgs.gov/news/new-usgs-maps-identify-potential-ground-shaking-hazards-2017

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