For the residents of Youngstown, Ohio, the recent onslaught of earthquakes came as a surprise.
Before the fracking wastewater industry came to Ohio, Youngstown residents didn’t know what an earthquake felt like — their community of 66,000 had never experienced anything like it. Yet by 2011, a year after the industry sprouted up in their backyards, scientists had recorded 109 earthquakes.
Coincidence? Scientists behind the report published in a summer issue of Geophysical Research Letters don’t think so. The report blames the fracking industry for the skyrocket in earthquakes, confirming what other geologists and scientists have said for years.
Ohio shares the natural gas-filled Marcellus shale formation, which also stretches through Pennsylvania, West Virginia and southern portions of New York. While fracking does occur in Ohio, its main role in the fracking industry relates to wastewater storage.
To frack a well, a combination of water, chemicals and silica sand is blasted down beneath the surface, where it breaks up formation where oil or gas is hidden. After being extracted the oil or gas is separated from the remaining fluid, which is known as the fracking wastewater. The contaminated fluid, which contains chemicals, traces of oil and naturally occurring hard metals, is toxic and not suitable for above-ground storage. The industry’s solution to this issue has been to transport it to Ohio, where the water is injected down expired wells.
This, scientists say, is inducing the earthquakes.
“Earthquakes were triggered by fluid injection shortly after the injection initiated — less than two weeks,” Columbia University seismologist Won-Young Kim told Live Science. “Previously we knew [of] unusual earthquakes around Youngstown, Ohio, only on March 17, around 80 days after injection began. If we had better seismographic station coverage, or if we were more careful, we could have caught those early events.”
The report profiles rises and falls in earthquake activity, noting a decline after the well in question was shut down by the Department of Natural Resources in 2011. When the well wasn’t running on major holidays — Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving — data revealed a decline in seismic activity, as well.
This isn’t the first time researchers have pinpointed the correlation between fracking activity and earthquakes. In 2011, a geophysicist at the University of Texas-Austin indicated that the state’s uptick in tremors between 2008 and 2009 were caused by an increase in fracking wells. Between Oct. 30, 2008 and May 31, 2009, 180 tremors were noted in one area near the Dallas airport, according to a 2011 Live Science report. The earthquakes began a short time after a fracking wastewater well began operating.
The problem for scientists researching the correlation between fracking wastewater sites and earthquakes has been centered around the argument that not all injection well sites are surrounded by areas experiencing increased rates of earthquakes. However, the case in Ohio, for example, occurred after the Northstar 1 well began operations — located near a fault, scientists theorize the injection induced fault rupture, causing seismic activity.
That same theory was examined by Cliff Frohlich, the University of Texas geophysicist.
“Similarly, if you pump fluids into the earth where there is a fault, it might push the sides of the fault apart just enough so that the rock can slip,” he told Live Science in 2011.
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