The Fault Line: Ohio quakes offer lessons for Texas

A growing number of studies and state regulators link the tremors in Ohio to oil and gas waste disposal wells and hydraulic fracturing.

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — A few decades ago, Youngstown, Ohio pulsed to the beat of the steel industry. The banks of the Mahoning River were lined with mills.

These days, Youngstown and northeastern Ohio occasionally shiver to the beat of the oil and gas industry.

From earthquakes.

What Ohio is experiencing may hold some lessons for Texas, because a growing number of studies and state regulators link the tremors to oil and gas waste disposal wells and hydraulic fracturing.

The spike in public consciousness over oil and gas and earthquakes happened in Youngstown on New Year's Eve 2011.

"Bam," Lynn Anderson remembers. The cats that were sleeping on her shoulders that evening "launched."

"Everybody ran out of their houses," she told News 8.

Diana Ludwig felt it, too. "The floor shook and scared the pants off us," she said.

The wood pile in Tom Cvetkovich's backyard was strewn across the yard, and cracks in his ceiling and upstairs bedroom appeared.

"We knew right away what it was," he said.

It was a magnitude 4, ultimately traced by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to an injection disposal well called Northstar I.

"There were nine quakes before the big one," said John Williams, a local resident who now opposes fracking following the seismic swarm.

The earthquakes were a rallying cry for opposition to oil and gas drilling for many in northeastern Ohio. The Northstar I well is now inactive, but "the battle for this well is not over until it is dismantled," Williams pledged.

Dr. Ray Beiersdorfer, a geologist at Youngstown State University, traces 1,055 earthquakes — most of them less than magnitude 2 — to oil and gas activity in northeastern Ohio. He also is a consultant for Fracfree Mahoning Valley, a group that opposes hydraulic fracturing techniques to extract energy resources and injection wells to dispose of waste.

Beiersdorfer attributes the quakes to underground faults drillers didn't know were there. "We don't know where all the faults are, and that's the problem.... and they're going too close to where these faults are in the ancient rocks," he said.

Two of the wells Beiersdorfer and the state link to earthquakes are injection disposal wells which pump salt water produced as a byproduct of oil and gas extraction deep underground. Two more are fracking wells, which are rarely linked to earthquakes.

A 3.0 earthquake last spring is linked to a well that was being fracked east of Youngstown, not far from Poland, Ohio. A recently released paper by geologists at Miami University of Ohio said 77 quakes were the result of the fracking at that well.

"It really felt like a huge BOOM," said Maggie Henry, who lives on a farm nearby. "It felt like the house had been hit by something."

Another series of quakes are linked to a fracking operation about 60 miles south of Youngstown. Those quakes are reported in a paper by a New York seismologist.

"I think Texas can learn from Ohio that there are faults in the earth that we didn't know existed," said geologist Beiersdorfer. "And every time there's an earthquake, that means we've just discovered a fault."

After the Northstar I quakes, Ohio enacted new rules. The state has 17 seismographs that can detect quakes around the state. If a well is suspected of producing a quake of magnitude 2.0 or greater, the driller is required to place seismographs near it. Any quake of 1.0 or greater after that can bring the suspension of drilling. This is known as the "stop light" provision.

Beiersdorfer does not think this is enough... but it's more than Texas is doing.

In Part 3 of The Fault Line on News 8 at 10 on Wednesday, we'll explore how Texas oil and gas regulators have reacted to the earthquakes.

MORE: Earthquake news and maps


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