March 2014 marks the third anniversary of the first reported earthquakes in the Mahoning Valley. The largest one was a magnitude 3.9. These tremors have been proven scientifically to be injection-induced earthquakes due to pumping fracking waste deep underground. March 2014 also saw twelve earthquakes at the Carbon-Limestone landfill in Poland Township, south of Lowellville, Ohio. The depths of these earthquakes were reported between 8,200 feet and 17,000 feet but the uncertainties in these values are very high. According to The Business Journal and The New York Times, Hilcorp Energy Company was fracking one of its wells at the site when the earthquakes occurred. The exact specifics regarding timing, fluid volumes and pressures have not been made public. A completion report for one of the wells puts the horizontal leg at 8,100 feet below the surface. I estimate the Precambrian basement to be an additional 1,500 feet below the well.
After four earthquakes occurred between 2:26 and 11:44 am on March 10th, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) ordered Hilcorp to suspend all activity at the site. It was later revealed that "suspend all activity" did not include continued gas production at one of the wells and flaring gas and removal of frack-flowback fluids at the other site. It seems "suspend all activity" meant no additional drilling or fracking. University and government geologists and seismologists at the local-, state- and national-levels have requested ODNR to deploy portable seismographic stations. These stations will provide detailed information on the location within the earth (hypocenter) of any future earthquakes, if and when activities resume. The request has been ignored. According to a telephone conversation I had with Mark Bruce (ODNR Spokesperson for these earthquakes) they are not even discussing deploying portable seismic stations to the site. He said that the five seismometers located within 8 miles (the closest is 4 miles away) are sufficient. My reply that these stations are not close enough to precisely determine the depth of these small earthquakes was not addressed.
I have received many questions about the two sets of seismic events from the media and concerned citizens. Are the two locations, around 14 miles apart, related? Did the recent temblors have anything to do with the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that occurred offshore northern California around two hours before the largest one at the landfill? Did previous blasting at the long-closed limestone quarry at the site have any impact? Are the recent quakes due to the shale gas production, drilling and/or fracking occurring at the site? Is there a threat to the integrity of the landfill liner or the methane and leachate recovery systems that snake their way through the municipal and industrial waste at the site? Some of these questions can be addressed by the publicly available data.
The 2014 epicenters are fourteen miles southeast of the Youngstown North Star 1 injection well, the culprit in the 2011 earthquakes. The fault that moved in 2014 does not appear to be related to the two faults that moved under Youngstown in 2011. According to a peer-reviewed scientific publication entitled "Induced seismicity associated with fluid injection into a deep well in Youngstown, Ohio" written by Dr. W-Y Kim of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the earthquakes revealed two parallel faults. The fault planes are close to vertical and each trends ENE-WNW. These faults are not connected to the new earthquakes. If the Youngstown faults trended SE-NW this could have been a concern, but it is not.
Regarding a possible California connection, seven additional earthquakes, ranging in magnitude from 1.18 to 2.24, have been identified by Dr. Kim, These include four fore-shocks, indicating that seismic activity was happening three to five days before the large Californian earthquake. This doesn't totally rule out the California event being a trigger, but the fact that this earthquake didn't show up on any of five USGS netquake seismic stations spread around Ohio makes this scenario seem unlikely. It doesn't appear to be at fault here.
Blasting to break up the limestone rock, when Essroc was mining the open pit at much shallower depths compared to the earthquakes, also seems an unlikely suspect. Besides the large difference in depth between the blasting and the earthquakes, the mining shut down over four years ago, along with the cement plant in Bessemer, PA. Why didn't the earthquakes happen when the blasting was going on for decades, rather than four years after it stopped? Blasting related to the construction of a passive-drainage system by the landfill operator did begin about a week before the earthquakes and is still continuing. The company is blasting everyday at 3 p.m. as state regulators did not require them to stop. While the fact that the blasting has continued and the earthquakes have stopped doesn't totally rule out a connection between the two, it makes one less likely. My As far as the seismic integrity of the landfill, the operators say it is designed for earthquakes, so we shouldn't worry. No mention in the press of how many earthquakes, how big and how close are in the seismic design.
The question with the potentially largest ramifications: "Are the recent quakes due to the shale gas production, drilling and/or fracking occurring at the site?" requires the proprietary Hilcorp well data and additional seismic information about any future earthquakes. As reported in The Business Journal and elsewhere, I have called for ODNR to publicly release the data and to deploy the portable seismic stations they acquired after the Youngstown earthquakes. These portable seismic stations are not controlled by the Ohio Seismic network part of ODNR. They are under the control of the underground injection program, to be used when they suspect underground injection may be causing earthquakes. New regulations implemented after the Youngstown earthquakes would require them to be deployed if earthquakes occur near an injection well, not a fracking well.
Between January 2011 and January 2012, Youngstown suffered twelve regional (Magnitude 1.8 to 3.9) and ninety-seven instrumental (Magnitude 0.4 to 1.8) earthquakes. The first earthquake, an instrumental one, happened within two-weeks of the start of fracking-waste injection at the D&L Energy Northstar #1 well. The first two regional earthquakes occurred on March 17, 2011, less than three months after the injection began. It was later revealed that the well itself penetrated a fault, as identified by highly fractured rock, in its lowest part. This fault was identified by geophysical well logging, which was done before the injection of fracking waste began.
Nearby homes suffered minor damage (mostly cracks in the walls) in 2011 and again in 2014. A recently remodeled home in Lowellville, slightly less that a mile and a half due north of the epicenter of the largest quake, suffered cracks in several walls.
Back in 2011, I found ODNR's response to the earthquakes to be indistinguishable from the company doing the injection, something I didn't expect from a regulatory agency. In October, 2011, after the Mahoning Valley suffered eight regional earthquakes over a period of seven months, and whose epicenters were located near the injection well, ODNR spokesperson Heidi Hetzel-Evans was quoted as saying "ODNR has not seen any evidence that shows a correlation between localized seismic activity and deep injection well disposal." This statement was remarkable in its inaccuracy because pretty much everyone I knew in the region, from my freshman geology students to my 80-year old neighbors could tell there was a correlation in space and a correlation in time. Everyone but the ODNR was proven correct when the hypocenters of the earthquakes were determined to be located in close proximity to the bottom of the well. It took data from four portable-seismographs, positioned to best determine the locations of the hypocenters, to reveal that the earthquakes occurred on two faults. The data showed that the earthquakes migrated away from the well over time, apparently as fluids penetrated deeper and deeper into the faulted rock. Before those quakes no one knew there was a fault there, now we know there are two.
Has ODNR's behavior changed much since the Youngstown quakes? In 2011 ODNR was unresponsive to Rep. Hagan's requests for information, used little to no scientific evidence to deny any connection between the well and the earthquakes, and failed to address citizens' concerns. Instead we had to listen to boring lectures on the history of oil and gas development in Ohio at the Covelli Center in Downtown Youngstown. Although ODNR did respond on the same day of the earthquakes this time, it was with a misleading statement that all activities had been suspended and the non-connection to injection wells. All activities were not suspended, gas was still being produced from one well, flowback was continuing and flaring occurred. According to spokesperson Mark Bruce, ODNR allowed continued gas production because it lowers the pressure and is therefor not a danger. This is not always the case according to a 2012 report by the National Research Council which states that you can get earthquakes from withdrawing fluids and reducing pore pressure. The report lists 20 cases of hydrocarbon production causing earthquakes in the United States.
Representative Bob Hagan was rightfully upset with ODNR's obfuscation in 2011 as well as three years later, as the department has been unresponsive to him, the press and myself. Journalists have been informed by state geologists and seismologists that they are not allowed to talk to the press. In 2011 Bob was listed on ODNR's enemies' list, along with Representative Nickie Antonio, in the frackgate memo. The Governor's office and ODNR both deny the "communication plan" was ever implemented but they sure are treating Bob as if it is in effect right now. None of my e-mails to spokesperson Mark Bruce and underground injection control director Tom Tomastik have been answered. I did speak to Mark once over the phone. However, every message sent to OhioSeis director Dr. Mike Hanson, has been answered quickly and appropriately.
On the same day as the recent earthquakes, ODNR quickly pointed out that there are no injection wells in the vicinity. It turns out, according to fracktracker.org there are four nearby injection wells (in Coitsville, Springfield and Beaver Townships), all of which ODNR shut down. I initially found the quick ruling out of injection wells as a possible cause somewhat ironic, given ODNR's eight-months of denial of injection-induced seismicity in 2011. I am now wondering if this statement was made to somehow avoid having to automatically deploy the portable seismic stations, which they would have to do if an injection well was nearby. I admit it seems odd to suspect a state regulatory agency of subterfuge, but after the "frackgate" revelations earlier this year, it is within the realm of possibility.
After an earthquake related to fracking the U.K. the governments Department of Energy and Climate Change enlisted a group of independent experts to study the event and make recommendations for going forward. These included requiring a microseismic array to be installed prior to the next frack treatment and a local threshold of seismic magnitude 0.5 to stop operations if earthquakes continue. So far we do not know what ODNR’s plans are for these well sites. After the injection well was closed in Youngstown two significant things occurred. Firstly the earthquakes dropped off within a month. In his peer-reviewed publication Dr. Kim points out that “it is possible that continued injection of fluid at Northstar 1 well could have triggered potentially large and damaging earthquakes.” Finally, although the well was shut down, the company D&L Energy continued to receive frack waste which they dumped illegally at night into a drain that entered the Mahoning River, a drinking water supply for communities downstream. The illegal dumping occurred on at least 33 occasions and didn’t stop until a whistle blower alerted authorities. So far three people have been charged, two of which (including the company president) have already plead guilty. The clean up has already cost over a million dollars.
We suffered another set of earthquakes in the Mahoning Valley and the ODNR claims to be getting to the bottom of this, yet the most important thing they could do, deploy the remote seismic stations, is not being done. Representative Hagan is being neglected. The press is being avoided. Somehow, we are expected to believe that ODNR has the technical expertise and social reasonability to decide where in our communities fracking and waste-injection can take place, whether you want them or not.