By Sharon Kelly
Between 2011 and 2016, fracked oil and gas wells in the U.S. pumped out record-breaking amounts of wastewater, which is laced with toxic and radioactive materials, a new Duke University study concludes. The amount of wastewater from fracking rose 1,440 percent during that period.
Thousands of oil and gas industry wastewater spills in North Dakota have caused “widespread” contamination from radioactive materials, heavy metals and corrosive salts, putting the health of people and wildlife at risk, researchers from Duke University concluded in a newly released peer-reviewed study.
Some rivers and streams in North Dakota now carry levels of radioactive and toxic materials higher than federal drinking water standards as a result of wastewater spills, the scientists found after testing near spills. Many cities and towns draw their drinking water from rivers and streams, though federal law generally requires drinking water to be treated before it reaches peoples' homes and the scientists did not test tap water as part of their research.
High levels of lead—the same heavy metal that infamously contaminated water in Flint, Michigan—as well as the radioactive element radium, were discovered near spill sites. One substance, selenium, was found in the state's waters at levels as high as 35 times the federal thresholds set to protect fish, mussels and other wildlife, including those that people eat.
The pollution was found on land as well as in water. The soils in locations where wastewater spilled were laced with significant levels of radium and even higher levels of radium were discovered in the ground downstream from the spills' origin points, showing that radioactive materials were soaking into the ground and building up as spills flowed over the ground, the researchers said.
The sheer number of spills in the past several years is striking. All told, the Duke University researchers mapped out a total of more than 3,900 accidental spills of oil and gas wastewater in North Dakota alone.
Contamination remained at the oldest spill site tested, where roughly 300 barrels of wastewater were released in a spill four years before the team of researchers arrived to take samples, demonstrating that any cleanup efforts at the site had been insufficient.
“Unlike spilled oil, which starts to break down in soil, these spilled brines consist of inorganic chemicals, metals and salts that are resistant to biodegradation,” said Nancy Lauer, a Duke University PhD student who was lead author of the study, which was published in Environmental Science & Technology. “They don't go away; they stay.”
“This has created a legacy of radioactivity at spill sites,” she said.
The highest level of radium the scientists found in soil measured more than 4,600 Bequerels per kilogram [bq/kg]—which translates to roughly two and half times the levels of fracking-related radioactive contamination discovered in Pennsylvania in a 2013 report that drew national attention. To put those numbers in context, under North Dakota law, waste more than 185 bq/kg is considered too radioactive to dispose in regular landfills without a special permit or to haul on roads without a specific license from the state.
And that radioactive contamination—in some places more than 100 times the levels of radioactivity as found upstream from the spill—will be here to stay for millennia, the researchers concluded, unless unprecedented spill clean-up efforts are made.
“The results of this study indicate that the water contamination from brine spills is remarkably persistent in the environment, resulting in elevated levels of salts and trace elements that can be preserved in spill sites for at least months to years,” the study concluded. “The relatively long half-life of [Radium 226] (∼1600 years) suggests that [Radium] contamination in spill sites will remain for thousands of years.”
Cleanup efforts remain underway at three of the four sites that the Duke University research team sampled, a North Dakota State Health Department official asked to comment on the research told the Bismarck Tribune, while the fourth site had not yet been addressed. He criticized the researchers for failing to include any in-depth testing of sites where the most extensive types of cleanup efforts had been completed.
The four sites the researchers sampled instead included the locations of two of the biggest spills in the state's history, including a spill of 2.9 million gallons in January 2015 and two areas where smaller spills occurred in 2011. The samples from the sites were collected in June 2015, with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Over the past decade, roughly 9,700 wells have been drilled in North Dakota's Bakken shale and Bottineu oilfield region—meaning that there has been over one spill reported to regulators for every three wells drilled.
“Until now, research in many regions of the nation has shown that contamination from fracking has been fairly sporadic and inconsistent,” Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, said when the study was released. “In North Dakota, however, we find it is widespread and persistent, with clear evidence of direct water contamination from fracking.”
Dealing with wastewater generated by drilling and fracking has proved to be one of the shale industry's most intractable problems. The industry often pumps its toxic waste underground in a process known as wastewater injection. Every day, roughly 2 billion gallons of oil and gas wastewater are injected into the ground nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Wastewater injection has been linked to swarms of earthquakes that have prompted a series of legal challenges.
The sheer volume of waste generated by the industry—particularly from the type of high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing used to tap shale oil and gas—has often overwhelmed state regulators, especially because federal laws leave the waste exempt from hazardous waste handling laws, no matter how toxic or dangerous it might be, under an exception for the industry carved out in the 1980's.
This leaves policing fracking waste up to state inspectors and not only do the rules vary widely from state to state, but enforcing those rules brings its own difficulties.
State inspectors have faced escalating workloads as budgets have often failed to keep pace with the industry's rapid expansion. In North Dakota, the number of wells per inspector climbed from roughly 359 each in 2012 to 500 per inspector last year. In other states, the ratios are even more challenging, with Wyoming oil and gas well inspectors being responsible for more than 2,900 wells in 2015. And now, with the collapse of oil and gas prices, funds earmarked for oil and gas inspection have also nosedived in many states.
Lax enforcement may help explain why wastewater spills are so common across the U.S. More than 180 million gallons of wastewater was spilled between 2009 and 2014, according to an investigation by the Associated Press, which tallied the amount of wastewater spilled in the 21,651 accidents that were reported to state or federal regulators nationwide during that time.
The naturally occurring radioactive materials in that wastewater have drawn particular concern, partly because of their longevity in the environment and partly because the drilling industry enjoys looser federal standards for their radioactive waste than many other industries.
In January, North Dakota regulators further relaxed their standards for the dumping of radioactive materials, allowing many landfills in the state to accept drilling waste at levels higher than previously permitted, citing tough economic times for drillers.
But environmentalists argue that relaxing the rules for radioactive waste disposal could mean that radioactive materials receive less careful handling. “If people think this study points to a building tragedy, just wait,” Darrell Dorgan, who chairs the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, told the Bismarck Tribune, when the Duke University research was released. “The new rules allow radioactive waste that is 10 times more dangerous.”
The spills the Duke University researchers identified often resulted from a failure to maintain infrastructure including pipelines and storage tanks. Roughly half of the wastewater spilled came from failed pipelines, followed by leaks from valves and other pipe connectors and then tank leaks or overflows.
But recent floods in Texas's Eagle Ford shale region also highlight the risks that natural disasters in drilling regions might pose. Texas regulators photographed plumes of contamination around submerged drilling sites, a repeat of similar incidents in Colorado. “That’s a potential disaster,” Dr. Walter Tsou, former president of the American Public Health Association told the Dallas Morning News.
Risks associated with fracking in flood zones have drawn the attention of some federal agencies in the past, but perhaps not in a way that locals in affected areas might find helpful.
In 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program—a program designed to help people move away from areas subject to recurring floods—ran into a series of conflicts over oil and gas leases on properties that would otherwise be offered buy-outs. Some homeowners in Pennsylvania were denied the chance to participate in the program because of oil and gas leases or pipelines on their properties, as DeSmog previously reported.
In other words, it may be harder for those who have signed oil and gas or pipeline leases to abandon flood-prone areas, meaning that homeowners whose properties frequently flood could potentially face battles over cleanup costs without aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And the newly published research from North Dakota suggests that the less visible brines may ultimately be more of a long-lasting environmental hazard than the spilled oil.
Even though their study included only leaks that were reported to state regulators, the researchers warned that little is currently being done to clean up sites where spills have occurred—or even to track smaller spills, especially on reservation lands, where roughly a quarter of the state's oil is produced.
This means that the real amount of wastewater spilled is likely even higher than currently reported.
“Many smaller spills have also occurred on tribal lands,” Prof. Vengosh said, “and as far as we know, no one is monitoring them.”
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
A coalition of community and environmental organizations filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Wednesday calling for regulations to stop oil and gas companies from disposing and handling drilling and fracking wastes in ways that threaten public health and the environment.
“Waste from the oil and gas industry is very often toxic and should be treated that way,” Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “Right now, companies can get rid of their toxic mess in any number of dangerous ways—from spraying it on icy roads, to sending it to landfills with our everyday household trash, to injecting it underground where it can endanger drinking water and trigger earthquakes. EPA must step in and protect our communities and drinking water from the carcinogens, radioactive material and other dangerous substances that go hand-in-hand with oil and gas waste.”
The organizations are pushing the EPA to issue rules that address problems including the disposal of fracking wastewater in underground injection wells, which accept hundreds of millions of gallons of oil and gas wastewater and have been linked to numerous earthquakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas.
“Updated rules for oil and gas wastes are almost 30 years overdue and we need them now more than ever,” Adam Kron, senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project, said. “Each well now generates millions of gallons of wastewater and hundreds of tons of solid wastes and yet EPA’s inaction has kept the most basic, inadequate rules in place. The public deserves better than this.”
The groups filing suit include the Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Responsible Drilling Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, calls on the court to set strict deadlines for the EPA to comply with its long-overdue obligations to update waste disposal rules that should have been revised more than a quarter century ago.
The organizations are urging the EPA to ban the practice of spreading fracking wastewater onto roads or fields, which allows toxic pollutants to run off and contaminate streams. And the EPA should require landfills and ponds that receive drilling and fracking waste to be built with adequate liners and structural integrity to prevent spills and leaks into groundwater and streams.
The groups filed a notice of their intent to sue the EPA last August, warning the agency a lawsuit would follow unless it complied with its duty under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to review and revise the federal regulations and guidelines governing how oil and gas waste must be handled and disposed. RCRA requires that the EPA review the regulations and state plan guidelines at least every three years and, if necessary, revise them. The agency determined in 1988 that such revisions of the regulations were necessary to address specific concerns with oil and gas wastes, yet has failed to meet its legal responsibility to act for nearly three decades.
“Waste from the oil & gas industry is very often toxic and should be treated that way,” says @NRDC senior policy analyst Amy Mall.— NRDC (@NRDC)1462379531.0
Over the last decade, the oil and gas industry’s fracking-based boom has produced a vast amount of solid and liquid waste. Each well produces millions of gallons of wastewater and hundreds of tons of drill cuttings, which contain contaminants that pose serious risks to human health. These include known carcinogens such as benzene, toxic metals such as mercury and radioactive materials. However, the current RCRA rules that govern oil and gas wastes are too weak because they are the same rules that apply to all “non-hazardous” wastes, including household trash.
As a result, oil and gas companies are disposing, storing, transporting and handling these wastes in a number of troublesome ways. These include: spraying fracking waste fluids onto roads and land near where people live and work; disposing of billions of gallons of oil and gas wastewater in underground injection wells; sending the drill cuttings and fracking sands to landfills not designed to handle toxic or radioactive materials; and storing and disposing of wastewater in pits and ponds, which often leak. Across the U.S., there are numerous instances of wastes leaking out of ponds and pits into nearby streams and the groundwater beneath and operators often “close” the pits by simply burying the wastes on site.“
In 1988, the EPA promised to require oil and gas companies to handle this waste more carefully,” said Aaron Mintzes, Policy Advocate for Earthworks. “Yet neither EPA nor the states have acted. Today's suit just says 28 years is too long for communities to wait for protections from this industry's hazardous waste.”
- Ohio: Underground injection wells in Ohio accepted 1.2 billion gallons of oil and gas wastewater for disposal in 2015, more than double the amount in 2011. Half this wastewater came from out of state. This has resulted in scores of earthquakes in the well-dense Youngstown area, with one well alone linked to 77 earthquakes. The Ohio Oil and Gas Commission recently noted that regulations “have not kept pace” with the problem and that (to an extent) both the state and industry are “working with their eyes closed.” Other states that have experienced increased seismic events in the proximity of injection wells include Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
- Pennsylvania: In May 2012, a six-million-gallon industrial pond holding fracking wastewater in Tioga County leaked pollutants, including arsenic and strontium, through holes in its liner into groundwater and a nearby trout stream.
- West Virginia: Oil and gas wastewater dumped or spilled in rivers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania contains high levels of potentially hazardous ammonium and iodide, according to a study by Duke University scientists.
- North Dakota: In January 2015, three million gallons of drilling wastewater spilled from a leaky pipe outside Williston, polluting a tributary of the Missouri River. In July 2011, a pipeline serving a well in Bottineau County leaked over two million gallons of fracking wastewater, damaging 24 acres of private land.
- Colorado: A contractor for a pipeline services firm gave a detailed account of sand-blasting pulverized waste buildup (called “scale”) from pipeline seals directly into the air outdoors without a filter, even though such dust can be radioactive and cause damage to lungs.
- Across the Marcellus region: Over the past several years, landfills in states around the Marcellus shale formation—even in New York, where fracking is prohibited—have experienced increasing shipments of drill cuttings that contain high levels of radiation. Many of the landfills do not test for radiation and do not have adequate controls to prevent the often toxic and radioactive “leachate” from seeping into groundwater.
“Although West Virginia has taken some steps to improve regulation, the state's approach has been to permit horizontal drilling without carefully considering whether current methods of waste disposal are appropriate or adequate,” Julie Archer, project manager at the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, said. “It's past time for the EPA to provide clear guidance on how these wastes should be handled to protect our communities."
EPA’s current regulations do not take into account the dangerous contents of oil and gas wastes or their unique handling and disposal practices. Since 1988, the agency has acknowledged the shortcoming of its basic rules for solid waste management and has indicated that it needs to create enhanced rules tailored to the oil and gas industry. However, the agency has yet to take any action to develop these updated regulations.
“A major reason for the industry’s use of injection wells to dispose of toxic fracking waste is the low disposal cost,” Teresa Mills, director of the Ohio field office for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, said. “We reject this reasoning because the public’s health and safety must come first.”
“As an organization representing hundreds of families living in close proximity to oil and gas operations, we see not only the physical pollution, but also the psychological toll that oil and gas waste exacts on communities,” Dan Olson, executive director of the Colorado-based San Juan Citizens Alliance, said. “That the EPA is 30 years overdue in creating common sense rules for managing toxic waste from oil and gas operations is a cause of great concern for everyone living near these sources of improperly regulated industrial pollution.”
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A new study from the University of Missouri (MU) has reported high levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in the surface water near a fracking wastewater disposal facility in West Virginia, raising concerns if similar cases are occurring nationwide given the country's 36,000 fracking disposal sites.
A number of high profile "fraccidents" have occurred in and around West Virginia. Photo Credit: EarthJustice
The report, Endocrine Disrupting Activity in Surface Water Associated with a West Virginia Oil and Gas Industry Wastewater Injection Disposal Site, was published today in the peer-reviewed journal Science of the Total Environment.
BuzzFeed News reported from the study:
The contamination near Fayetteville, West Virginia, flows from a brook called Wolf Creek a few miles upstream of a drinking water treatment facility for 11,300 people. The disposal site, which includes a deep waste well, several holding ponds, and storage tanks, sits on a hillside above the creek, and has been the site of a fight over its permit, revoked in 2014 and then renewed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in August.
“I wouldn’t drink out of Wolf Creek,” University of Missouri toxicologist Susan Nagel, a study author, told BuzzFeed News. It’s unclear whether the contamination has reached residents’ drinking water, but that should be tested, Nagel said.
EDCs are associated with many health risks such as altered reproductive function in males and females, breast cancer, abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children, as well as changes in immune function.
The study reported that surface water samples collected on the disposal facility site and immediately downstream exhibited considerably greater EDC activity than surface water samples collected immediately upstream and in a nearby reference stream.
"We do not know the exact pathway/source of the contamination," Nagel explained to EcoWatch. "It is likely that aquatic life downstream of this facility are swimming in oil and gas chemicals and at levels high enough to disrupt the endocrine system."
Fracking fluids are already known to contain a toxic slew of hazardous chemicals, but oil and gas companies are not required to disclose exactly what they are.
Nagel told EcoWatch that it is important to note that under ideal fracking and wastewater disposal operations, many potential impacts on surface water would not occur.
"Whether chemicals reach surface water through surface spills, the former impoundment ponds, or surface/ground water mixing at this site, is unknown," she said. "Now that we have identified impacts to the local environment due to activities at the site, further work is needed to assess the specific routes of contaminant movement from these operations into the stream."
According to a press release of the study, dozens of chemicals may be used to frack a single site and approximately 1,000 more are reportedly used nationwide. Not only that, more than 100 of these chemicals are known as or suspected to be EDCs.
The large volumes of wastewater produced during the fracking is laden with chemicals and may also contain radioactive compounds and heavy metals released from deep underground, the press release noted.
“Our study only assessed the surface water impacts from a single injection disposal well facility," Christopher Kassotis, a former graduate student in Nagel’s laboratory and a current postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, said in a statement to EcoWatch. "While there are more than 30,000 of these wells operating across the U.S., we have not yet assessed any other facilities. The work presented herein suggest that this could be an issue at other similar operations, but further study is needed to determine whether that is the case."
Fracking Chemicals Linked to Cancer, According to New Report http://t.co/72UBjwT88L http://t.co/GC779ZGfqH— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1439390379.0
The scientists warn that in addition to humans, this level of EDCs may also be associated with negative health effects in aquatic organisms and other animals.
In a prior study published in Endocrinology last year, prenatal exposure to fracking fluids at levels found in the environment lowered sperm counts in male mice when they reached adulthood.
“This study is the first to demonstrate that EDCs commonly used in fracking, at levels realistic for human and animal exposure in these regions, can have an adverse effect on the reproductive health of mice," Nagel, who was also the senior author of this study said, according to Endocrine News. "In addition to reduced sperm counts, the male mice exposed to the mixture of chemicals had elevated levels of testosterone in their blood and larger testicles. These findings may have implications for the fertility of men living in regions with dense oil and/or natural gas production.”
As for the big picture, the country's fracking boom only means a growing number of disposal wells. The Energy Information Administration found that fracking currently accounts for more than half of all U.S. oil output, up from less than 2 percent of American oil production in 2000. Disposal of oil and gas wastewater into underground disposal wells have also been linked to an increase seismic activity, especially in frack-happy Oklahoma.
"The major take-homes are that oil and gas injection well operations may be another source for contamination of surface water with EDCs used in oil and gas production," Nagel explained to EcoWatch. "We hope that this drives additional research in this area to clearly define how oil and gas wastewater disposal impacts surface and ground water."
Listen to an interview with Dr. Nagel about the study below.
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Induced Earthquakes Increase Chances of Damaging Shaking, Wastewater Disposal From Fracking Primary Cause
By U.S. Geological Survey
For the first time, new U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps identify potential ground-shaking hazards from both human-induced and natural earthquakes. In the past, USGS maps only identified natural earthquake hazards.
This is also the first one-year outlook for the nation's earthquake hazards, and is a supplement to existing USGS assessments that provide a 50-year forecast
The report shows that approximately 7 million people live and work in areas of the central and eastern U.S. (CEUS) with potential for damaging shaking from induced seismicity. Within a few portions of the CEUS, the chance of damage from all types of earthquakes is similar to that of natural earthquakes in high-hazard areas of California.
“By including human-induced events, our assessment of earthquake hazards has significantly increased in parts of the U.S.," Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project, said. “This research also shows that much more of the nation faces a significant chance of having damaging earthquakes over the next year, whether natural or human-induced."
Induced earthquakes are triggered by human activities, with wastewater disposal being the primary cause for recent events in many areas of the CEUS. Wastewater from oil and gas production operations can be disposed of by injecting it into deep underground wells, below aquifers that provide drinking water.
Six States Face the Highest Hazards
The most significant hazards from induced seismicity are in six states, listed in order from highest to lowest potential hazard: Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arkansas. Oklahoma and Texas have the largest populations exposed to induced earthquakes.
“In the past five years, the USGS has documented high shaking and damage in areas of these six states, mostly from induced earthquakes," Petersen said. “Furthermore, the USGS Did You Feel It? website has archived tens of thousands of reports from the public who experienced shaking in those states, including about 1,500 reports of strong shaking or damage."
In developing this new product, USGS scientists identified 21 areas with increased rates of induced seismicity. Induced earthquakes have occurred within small areas of Alabama and Ohio but a recent decrease in induced earthquake activity has resulted in a lower hazard forecast in these states for the next year. In other areas of Alabama and small parts of Mississippi, there has been an increase in activity, and scientists are still investigating whether those events were induced or natural.
People living in areas of higher earthquake hazard should learn how to be prepared for earthquakes, and guidance can be found through FEMA's Ready Campaign.
One-Year Outlook: The Nation's Shortest Forecast Yet
The new hazard model estimates where, how often and how strongly earthquake ground shaking could occur in the U.S. during calendar year 2016. The USGS chose this short timeframe of one year because induced earthquake activity can increase or decrease with time and is subject to commercial and policy decisions that could change rapidly.
The USGS National Seismic Hazard Map uses a 50-year forecast because that is the average lifetime of a building, and such information is essential to engineering design and the development of building codes. Building code committees are still determining whether it is appropriate to treat induced earthquakes in building code revisions, in part because induced seismicity changes on short time scales compared to the years it takes for building codes to be updated, reviewed and adopted.
How Will This Help Protect Communities?
The new report can be used by both government officials to make more informed decisions and by emergency response personnel to assess vulnerability and provide safety information to those who are in potential danger. Engineers can use this product to evaluate earthquake safety of buildings, bridges, pipelines and other important structures.
Dramatic Change in the Central U.S.
The central U.S. has undergone the most dramatic increase in seismicity over the past six years. From 1973 to 2008, there was an average of 24 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 and larger per year. From 2009 to 2015, the rate steadily increased, averaging 318 per year and peaking in 2015 with 1,010 earthquakes. Through mid-March in 2016, there have been 226 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 and larger in the central U.S. region. To date, the largest earthquake located near several active injection wells was a magnitude 5.6 in 2011 near Prague, Oklahoma.
Research in the Western U.S.
The CEUS has experienced the most significant U.S. increase in seismic activity due to induced earthquakes in recent years. Therefore, in the 2016 forecast, scientists distinguish between human-induced and natural seismicity only for the CEUS. Scientists also used a historical catalog of seismic events leading back to the 1700s, putting a strong emphasis on earthquakes in 2015.
While there are some areas of induced earthquakes in the western U.S., they don't significantly change the regional hazard level compared to the much more abundant natural earthquakes. Therefore scientists just considered the historical catalog in the western U.S. and did not separate natural from induced earthquakes. Future research could take a more detailed look at induced seismicity in the west, including in California at The Geysers, Brawley or the Los Angeles Basin.
Explanation of Updates: Mostly, But Not All, Are Induced
The USGS published a study in 2014 that only considered natural earthquakes. The largest changes in this new report are primarily due to hazards from induced earthquakes, but the calculations also consider updated forecasts for natural earthquakes since the previous hazard map was released. For example, the New Madrid Seismic Zone near Memphis has experienced a higher rate of natural earthquakes in the past two years, leading to a slightly higher hazard potential in small portions of Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Wastewater disposal is thought to be the primary reason for the recent increase in earthquakes in the CEUS. While most injection wells are not associated with earthquakes, some other wells have been implicated in published scientific studies, and many states are now regulating wastewater injection in order to limit earthquake hazards.
Induced Earthquakes Raise Chances of Damaging Shaking in 2016 https://t.co/EnldDSp0lc https://t.co/8Y494Prql0— USGS (@USGS)1459181284.0
Distinguishing Between Induced and Natural Earthquakes
To determine whether particular clusters of earthquakes were natural or induced, the USGS relied on published literature and discussions with state officials and the scientific and earthquake engineering community. Scientists looked at factors such as whether an earthquake occurred near a wastewater disposal well and whether the well was active at the time these earthquakes occurred. If so, it was classified as an induced event.
Current research indicates that the maximum magnitudes of induced earthquakes may be lower than for natural earthquakes, but many scientists suggest that induced earthquakes can trigger larger earthquakes on known or unknown faults. In the CEUS, there may be thousands of faults that could rupture in a large earthquake. Induced earthquakes also tend to exhibit swarm-like behavior with more numerous and smaller earthquakes at shallower depths. These factors were taken into account in the analysis.
Rise of #Fracking Wastewater Injections in #Ohio Sparks Fears of #Earthquakes https://t.co/4mgr8xRf5M @MarkRuffalo https://t.co/8vrO0k8233— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1457380110.0
Testing and Future Research
“We are using the best available data and principles to determine when, where and how strong the ground could shake from induced earthquakes," Petersen said. “Of course there is a level of uncertainty associated with this and all hazard maps, as we are still learning about their behavior and can only forecast with probability—instead of predict with certainty—where earthquakes are likely to occur in the future. Testing these maps after a year will be important in validating and improving the models."
The USGS is the only federal agency with responsibility for recording and reporting earthquake activity nationwide and assessing seismic hazard. These maps are part of USGS contributions to the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, which is a congressionally established partnership of four federal agencies with the purpose of reducing risks to life and property in the United States that result from earthquakes.
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Ohio has become a major wastewater dump for the fracking industry, sparking fears of groundwater contamination and concerns that injection of wastewater into wells could trigger the same earthquakes currently rattling frack-happy Oklahoma.
The Columbus Dispatch cited new numbers from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) revealing that wastewater pumped into Ohio's underground wells increased by more than 15 percent last year. In all, Ohio took in nearly 29 million barrels of fracking wastewater in 2015—4 million more barrels than in 2014, the Dispatch reported.
Injections of wastewater rise in Ohio despite lull in fracking https://t.co/enYl2hDxHU https://t.co/NkwbJNUVr5— Columbus Dispatch (@Columbus Dispatch)1457368516.0
Thirteen million barrels of this wastewater came from states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia that have strict rules against wastewater injection. About 55 percent of the fracking wastewater that ends up in Ohio injection wells came from the state itself, the Dispatch said.
Ohio, in fact, can be singled out for being the worst in the nation for its fracking waste disposal practices. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in September 2014 showing that Ohio was the only state among the eight it studied that allows waste fluids from oil and gas wells to be disposed of without disclosure of the chemicals it contains. Case in point, Pennsylvania, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of U.S. shale gas production, has fewer than a dozen injection wells to dispose of fracking waste underground whereas neighboring Ohio has hundreds.
It's no surprise then that Ohio's injection well disposal industry is a lucrative business, producing nearly $2 million in fees for ODNR in 2013, according to Midwest Energy News.
An Environment America Research & Policy Center report found that fracking operations produced 280 billion gallons of such wastewater in a single year. Studies have shown that fracking wastewater contains a toxic slurry of chemicals, including at least six—barium, chromium, copper, mercury, arsenic and antimony—that would make the water unsafe to drink. Fracking wastewater, however, is not considered hazardous by the federal government.
During the fracking process, millions of gallons of of water, sand and chemicals are blasted into shale formations to unlock oil and natural gas. While fracking itself can induce earthquakes—such as the 4.6-magnitude earthquake that struck northeast British Columbia last summer—the disposal of fracking wastewater into underground wells has led to the alarming spate of tremors felt in several states, scientists have concluded.
Eight states in particular—Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico—are in danger from an increased number of induced quakes primarily from the injection of the fracking wastewater into wells, the U.S. Geological Survey said in an April 2015 report.
The Dispatch reported that exact numbers on drilling patterns and oil and gas production in Ohio last year are not yet available. Still, the report noted that Ohio residents are worried that the activity could lead to groundwater contamination and expose the state to a surge in damaging earthquakes.
1.2 billion gallons of fracking wastewater injected into Ohio soil in 2015 #614now https://t.co/7x0Qhhulth https://t.co/0Pjn04yIKX— 614Now (@614Now)1457363687.0
“Something’s got to give,” Teresa Mills, program director for the Buckeye Forest Council, told the Dispatch. “Athens County, Coshocton, Guernsey (counties)—these are environmental-justice communities, and we have to stop burdening them.”
In March 2014, the ODNR ordered Texas-based energy company Hilcorp to halt all fracking operations in Mahoning County after at least four earthquakes shook the area. A magnitude 3.0 earthquake at 2:26 a.m. and a magnitude 2.6 at 11:45 a.m. on March 10 were among those reported in Poland Township just south of Youngstown near a fracking site with seven drilling wells, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“It’s an area which (before 2011) had no history of earthquakes,” John Armbruster, a retired Columbia University geology professor, told the Columbus Dispatch then. “It looks very, very suspicious.”
Fracking has had a contentious and controversial history in the Buckeye State. In 2011, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed a law passed by Ohio's Republican-controlled legislature allowing drilling companies to frack in state parks.
Kasich then reversed his position on fracking public lands in response to public outcry about the events surrounding recently released information about the state’s collusion with the oil and gas industry to conduct a shady pro-fracking PR campaign.
Coupled with that, a 2014 lawsuit against the governor and the ODNR claimed that that they illegally approved 23 facilities to handle the handling, storage, processing and recycling of fracking waste, bypassing the official rulemaking process.
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Environmental Activist Erin Brockovich Comes To OK, Speaks About Quakes https://t.co/k1sd1gzuuD https://t.co/tCngIsejlc— News On 6 (@News On 6)1456307347.0
In an interview with Oklahoma's News9, the prominent environmental activist and consumer advocate explained she's aware that the injection of mass quantities of fracking wastewater in disposal wells is triggering the tremors, as geologists have confirmed.
But Brockovich added, "It's fracking, let's just be honest."
Oklahoma experiences more earthquakes than anywhere in the world. Before 2009, Oklahoma had two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater each year, but now there are two a day. A 5.1 magnitude earthquake that shook northwest Oklahoma two weeks ago was the third-strongest ever recorded in the state, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said. And, within the past 24 hours, seven earthquakes rattled the city of Edmond in central Oklahoma.
Strong #Earthquake Rattles #Oklahoma, Felt in 7 Other States https://t.co/HzWGJ9z0Rw @MarkRuffalo @gaslandmovie @350 https://t.co/5p5BAWO2SK— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1447951276.0
Brockovich told News9 that many citizens have been concerned about structural damage to their homes and have called on her to help protect their health, property and legal rights.
"These people you know, they have rights and their homes are being damaged and structural damage and its cause by a man-made condition," Brockovich said.
Blaming a lack of regulation, Brockovich said that Oklahomans should review policies, legislation, rules, and regulations.
"There's a lack of enforcement. There’s a whole lot of information that can go out there that can help this community speak up and stand up for themselves,” she said.
Brockovich will be making several stops in the state to address the earthquake crisis, including town halls and an appearance at the state capitol today.
Last night, at an University of Central Oklahoma forum, Brockovich and several state leaders and experts urged Sooner state residents to rally against induced seismicity, FOX25 reported.
"They need resolution yesterday, not tomorrow," Brockovich said. "They're fearful for today, and so it's really important that we have that open process."
Brockovich wrote this on her Facebook page yesterday:
I'm here in Oklahoma today to talk about the fact that Oklahoma has become the Earthquake Capitol of the world ... a manmade natural disaster! Not only have thousands of homes and buildings been damaged ... but every jolt has permanent impacts on the Earth. Irreparable damage done in the name of the all mighty dollar.
Despite mounting scientific consensus against the oil and gas sector, certain politicians such as pro-business state Gov. Mary Fallin have been slow to change their tune about the link between fracking wastewater disposal and earthquakes. State scientists and regulators have also been reportedly silenced by industry-linked state officials.
Big Oil and Gas have denied any wrongdoing on their part and refute that the quakes are man-made. “There may be a link between earthquakes and disposal wells,” Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association president Chad Warmington said last April. “But we—industry, regulators, researchers, lawmakers or state residents—still don’t know enough about how wastewater injection impacts Oklahoma’s underground faults. We don’t know enough about what’s really going on in the subsurface to know how to mitigate some of this risk.”
Sandridge Energy Inc. has also defied the state regulator’s request that it shut down six wastewater disposal wells—located more than 100 miles northwest of Oklahoma City—used as part of the company’s fracking operations.
Map of Oklahoma. The orange dots represent the number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 and higher from 2010 to date. The blue dots represent the state’s wastewater disposal wells. Photo credit: Earthquakes in Oklahoma
In recent months, however, the state’s oil and gas regulator has had some success in reducing wastewater fluid injection levels and have shut down several wells completely. Shortly after the 5.1 magnitude Feb. 13 earthquake, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission made their largest push yet to curb the state’s seismic activity.
According to the Associated Press, the commission ordered operators of nearly 250 injection wells to reduce the amount of wastewater they inject underground. The commission released a plan that covers more than 5,200 square miles in northwest Oklahoma and called for a reduction of more than 500,000 barrels of wastewater daily, or about 40 percent less than previous levels, the AP reported.
Corporation Commission's Matt Skinner also told News9 that they have been "taking action on wells since the 5.6 M Prague earthquake in 2011."
Skinner added that in just the last 11 months, they've taken 15 actions covering 436 wells, 27 of which have been totally shut down.
EcoWatch recently reported that the Sierra Club and the public interest law firm Public Justice filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against New Dominion, Chesapeake Operating and Devon Energy Production Company alleging that wastewater from fracking and oil production have contributed to the state's earthquakes.
The lawsuit demands the companies, as a first step, “reduce, immediately and substantially, the amounts of production waste they are injecting into the ground.”
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In a win for clean water and public health, the U.S. Coast Guard quietly dropped its proposal today to allow barges on the nation's rivers and inter coastal waterways to transport toxic fracking wastewater.
“Shipping thousands of barrels of toxic wastewater down the rivers we drink from was a recipe for disaster," said Rachel Richardson, director of Environment America's stop drilling program. “For the sake of our drinking water and our safety, we're glad to see this bad idea put to rest."
Fracking—the controversial drilling technique by which large volumes of water, sand and chemicals are injected underground—creates vast quantities of toxic wastewater often laced with cancer causing chemicals and even radioactive material.
An Environment America Research & Policy Center report found that fracking operations produced 280 billion gallons of such wastewater in a single year—enough to cover DC in a 22-feet deep cesspool.
Despite its often dangerous contents, fracking wastewater is not considered hazardous by the federal government, and its transport, treatment and disposal is governed by a patchwork of federal and state regulations.
The October 2013 U.S. Coast Guard proposal came in response to a specific request by a tank barge, and was immediately met with widespread criticism. More than 98 percent of the 70,000 public comments submitted on the plan—including more than 29,000 collected from Environment America—were opposed. More than 100 organizations also called on the Coast Guard to drop its proposed policy.
While shipments of fracking waste could still be approved on a case-by-case basis, no such approval has ever been granted. Clean water advocates said they would remain vigilant and advocate against future applications that would ship fracking waste by barge.
“Until we ban fracking altogether, we need to limit Americans' exposure to its harmful pollution every way we can," said Richardson. “We'll continue to work with our allies to keep fracking waste off barges and rivers altogether."
This piece was updated Feb. 24 to clarify that fracking waste could still be shipped by barge on a case-by-case basis.
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Lawsuit Filed Over Oklahoma's 'Fracking' Earthquakes as Its Third Largest Quake Is Felt in 7 Other States
The suit against New Dominion, Chesapeake Operating and Devon Energy Production Company alleges that wastewater from fracking and oil production have contributed to the state's alarming spike in earthquake activity.
Map of Oklahoma. The orange dots represent the number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 and higher from 2010 to date. The blue dots represent the state’s wastewater disposal wells. Photo credit: Earthquakes in Oklahoma
The lawsuit demands the companies, as a first step, to “reduce, immediately and substantially, the amounts of production waste they are injecting into the ground.”
The lawsuit was filed the same day that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission made their largest push yet to curb the state's seismic activity. According to the Associated Press, the state's oil and gas regulator ordered operators of nearly 250 injection wells to reduce the amount of wastewater they inject underground.
The commission released a plan that covers more than 5,200 square miles in northwest Oklahoma and called for a reduction of more than 500,000 barrels of wastewater daily, or about 40 percent less than previous levels, the AP reported.
The commission's measure comes three days after a 5.1 magnitude earthquake shook northwest Oklahoma. Not only was the quake felt in seven other states, it's the third-strongest temblor ever recorded in the state, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said.
"Without knowing more specifics about the wastewater injection and oil and gas production in this area, the USGS cannot conclude whether or not this particular earthquake was caused by industrial-related, human activities," the agency said. "However, we do know that many earthquakes in the area have been triggered by wastewater fluid injection."
Fairview, Oklahoma's 5.1 magnitude earthquake on Feb. 13 that was felt in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas was the largest earthquake in the state since a 5.6 earthquake struck in 2011. Photo credit: USGS
In 2014, seismologists reported more than 5,000 earthquakes in Oklahoma. In 2015, the state experienced 907 quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater. “The earthquakes are continuing in 2016,” the suit states, noting that “Oklahoma City residents were awakened on January 1 with a 4.1 magnitude earthquake. Six days later, 4.3 and 4.8 magnitude earthquakes occurred back-to-back. [The state] has had 131 earthquakes from January 1 through 16, 2016, ranging from 2.01 to 4.8.”
The Tulsa World examined a recent Oklahoma Geological Survey study, which found an 81 percent jump from 2009 to 2014 in wastewater volumes pumped back underground from oil and gas activities, in which wastewater volumes skyrocketed to 1.538 billion barrels in 2014 from 849 million in 2009. The rise coincides with the state’s leap in seismicity, Tulsa World observed.
“The science laid out in our case is clear,” Paul Bland, executive director of Public Justice, said. “Oklahoma may be on the verge of experiencing a strong and potentially catastrophic earthquake. All evidence points to alarming seismic activity in and around fracking operations, and that activity is becoming more frequent and more severe. This lawsuit, which we filed after the three companies named in our suit refused to take steps of their own, is an action brought by residents of Oklahoma in an attempt to protect their property, their communities and their lives.”
The groups said in their complaint that continued injection “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment.”
“The dangers associated with fracking and its related processes has never been more clear than it is here in Oklahoma,” Johnson Bridgwater, director of Sierra Club’s Oklahoma chapter, said. “Oklahomans, just as all Americans do, deserve the right to live in peace and comfort—not to live in fear of man-made earthquakes. It is our hope that these three companies will recognize the immediate danger they are putting communities in, and put our health and our environment ahead of its profits.”
OKLAHOMA SIERRA CLUB SUING ENERGY COMPANIES OVER EARTHQUAKE CRISIS: https://t.co/tNvBsUmcjI #oklahomaearthquakes— Oklahoma Sierra Club (@Oklahoma Sierra Club)1455648977.0
Not only are the groups requesting a substantial reduction in production waste, they are also seeking an order that requires the companies to reinforce vulnerable structures, which could be impacted by large magnitude earthquakes. The suit also asks the court to require the establishment of an independent earthquake monitoring and prediction center.
“If the fracking industry doesn't change its ways, the next earthquake could be catastrophic," Robin L. Greenwald, head of Weitz & Luxenberg’s Environmental, Toxic Tort and Consumer Protection litigation unit, said. "This lawsuit seeks to beat back immediately the amount of production waste that fracking creates, to reduce the deep well injection of that waste and, most important, to limit the amount of damage this process is causing across the Sooner State."
Public Justice attorney Richard Webster told Radio Oklahoma News that "the polluters know very well that their activities will trigger earthquakes and yet they continue to inject large volumes of waste with impunity despite that knowledge.
"What we’re asking them for is to come down to a level where the injection does not induce earthquakes."
Listen to @FPBland & attorney @EnviroWeb discuss our #fracking lawsuit with @RadioOklahoma: https://t.co/FHMUKdtGY3— Public Justice (@Public Justice)1455643715.0
Devon spokesman John Porretto told the AP it would be inappropriate to discuss the suit from the Sierra Club and Public Justice. The other companies didn't immediately reply to requests for comment.
Many have criticized the state's slow response to the regulation of wastewater injection. Al Jazeera America's bombshell documentary, Earthquake State, exposed the maddening hurdles and bureaucracy that state scientists and regulators face in their efforts to halt the potential crisis and national security threat.
As the quakes continue to strike the state with increasing frequency, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin ordered $1.4 million in emergency funds for earthquake research during her annual State of the State last month.
"I'm committed to funding seismic research, bringing on line advanced technology and more staff to fully support our regulators at they take meaningful action on earthquakes," she said in a statement.
The Sierra Club and Public Justice have joined the mounting lawsuits against energy companies. Last month, 14 residents of Edmond, Oklahoma filed suit against 12 "reckless" energy companies, claiming their fracking operations caused the state's string of earthquakes.
Get ready #fracking Co! RT Oklahoma Residents Sue 12 'Reckless' #Fracking Companies for Earthquake Damage https://t.co/oFczFDDG3A @ecowatch— Bianca Jagger (@Bianca Jagger)1453214403.0
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The state of Oklahoma was rocked by more than 70 earthquakes last week. Two of the largest quakes measured magnitude 4.7 and 4.8 and struck in the rural northern part of the state, beneath a major oil and gas producing area. The week before that, the state was hit by a dozen tremors in less than a week, prompting the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, to order several injection well operators to reduce wastewater disposal volumes.
Scientists have linked this ongoing spate of tremors to the state’s drilling boom. The Oklahoma Geological Survey concluded that the injection of wastewater byproducts into deep underground disposal wells from fracking operations has triggered the seismic activity in the state.
In November 2015, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission reported that Oklahoma now experiences more earthquakes than anywhere else in the world. Oklahoma went from two earthquakes a year before 2009 to two a day. Prior to the state’s fracking boom, it averaged 1 to 2 earthquakes of a magnitude 3 or higher per year. By 2009, that number rose to 20. By 2013, it jumped to 585. And, according to Thom Hartmann of The Big Picture, data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that in 2015 Oklahoma experienced 881 earthquakes of a magnitude 3 or higher—that’s an average of nearly three per day.
Oklahoma’s uptick in tremors in just the past few years is staggering https://t.co/kO7WwIh84V @Frack_Off @NatalieMerchant— Stefanie Spear (@Stefanie Spear)1452042313.0
Between 2013 and 2015, "Oklahoma experienced a yearly average of 733 earthquakes, which is a nearly 39,000 percent increase from the 40-year average before 2008," Hartmann said. A seismologist at the National Earthquake Information Center called it "almost a millennium’s worth of earthquakes in two years.”
Watch Thom Hartmann of The Big Picture discuss with Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen's Energy Program whether this could be the wakeup call America needs to ban fracking once and for all:
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After the Oklahoma City area was hit by at least a dozen earthquakes in less than a week, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the state's oil and gas industry, ordered Monday that several injection well operators reduce wastewater disposal volumes.
"We are working with researchers on the entire area of the state involved in the latest seismic activity to plot out where we should go from here," Oil and Gas Conservation Division Director Tim Baker told the Associated Press.
Is oil drilling process known as fracking behind increase in Oklahoma earthquakes? https://t.co/XjovaGdlxL https://t.co/PmfZY4UmZ0— CBS Evening News (@CBS Evening News)1451956984.0
The commission's plan addresses five wastewater injection wells operating within 10 miles of the center of the earthquake activity near Edmond, a suburb outside of Oklahoma City. The plan calls for one well, located 3.5 miles from the epicenter, to reduce its disposal volume by 50 percent, with four more wells reducing their volumes by 25 percent. Other wells within a 15-mile radius will undergo further testing. The commission, according to the AP, said the operator of the well closest to the earthquake activity, Pedestal Oil Company Inc., has agreed to suspend operations entirely to assist the agency's research effort, and the operator of another well, Devon Energy Production Co., has also agreed to suspend operations.
However, one Oklahoma oil company is defying the state regulator’s request that it shut down six wastewater disposal wells—located more than 100 miles northwest of Oklahoma City—used as part of the company's fracking operations.
According to the The Wall Street Journal:
Sandridge Energy Inc., which has complied with similar requests in the past, said this time it won’t stop using its wastewater disposal wells ...
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates energy companies, is working on legal action to modify Sandridge’s permits in order to force it to abandon the wells, said Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the agency ...
Sandridge’s refusal to comply is a closely watched challenge to the state’s authority. The company’s earthquake conundrum is one that more drillers could face this year if oil prices continue to languish at low levels. Some of those, like Sandridge, need disposal wells to keep producing crude.
Sandridge may be reluctant to shut down the wells because it needs every bit of revenue it can generate at this point, said Jason Wangler, an analyst at Wunderlich Securities. Even if Sandridge continues to pump all the oil and gas it can, the company could run out of cash in 2016, he said.
On New Year's Day, a 4.2-magnitude earthquake struck near Edmond. On Monday, at least three earthquakes were recorded in the Stillwater area, the largest of which had a magnitude of 3.2, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The commission announced in November 2015 that Oklahoma now has more earthquakes than anywhere else in the world. Scientists have linked this never-ending spate of tremors to the state’s drilling boom. The Oklahoma Geological Survey concluded that the injection of wastewater byproducts into deep underground disposal wells from fracking operations has triggered the seismic activity in the state.
Oklahoma's uptick in tremors in just the past few years is staggering. Prior to the state's fracking boom, it averaged 1 to 2 earthquakes of a magnitude 3 or higher per year. By 2009, that number rose to 20. By 2013, it jumped to 585. Oklahoma closed 2015 with an estimated 900 earthquakes of a magnitude 3 or higher—that's an average of nearly three per day.
Sierra Club threatens to sue four #Oklahoma #fracking companies for causing #earthquakes. https://t.co/wNfSVbzBGn https://t.co/ME3ozbjiRv— Tim Ream (@Tim Ream)1446564847.0
To grapple with the near-constant earthquakes that have been plaguing the state, the commission has forced changes to 500 disposal wells around the state, including the shutdown of wells around the city of Cushing, which holds one of the largest crude oil storage facilities in the world. But with 3,500 disposal wells in operation, these regulations only apply to a fraction of existing wells.
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