The Earthquake and the Dangers of Injection Wells – Part 1: Geological Uncertainties

By Bernhard Debatin

Note: This is an extended version of an article that was published in the Athens News (online on Nov. 27, 2013)

In a moment of unparalleled irony, an earthquake struck Athens County southeast of Nelsonville on November 20, just a day after citizen of the area gathered at the Athens Community Center to voice their concerns about injection wells in Athens County. While the earthquake should give reason to pause, ODNR spokesperson Mike Bruce was quick to assert that this was “a natural earthquake” and that “there’s no way this was man-made.” (Athens News, November 25, 2013). The Youngstown shockwaves can still be felt in this attempt to separate this seismic event from the injection of large amounts of toxic fracking fluids into the underground.

However, reducing the issue to the question of whether the earthquake was a natural occurrence or caused by local injection wells is rather misleading and in fact irrelevant. The real problem is, we live in a seismically active area and every earthquake, injection-induced or not, may introduce new faults and fractures or extend existing ones. As a U.S. EPA document points out, such fractures may serve as a migration path for the polluted water that has been injected into the earth. Since frackwater is injected under high pressure, cracks and fissures leading toward aquifers can become channels for the pollution of drinking water sources. This is why putting injection wells in the vicinity of fault lines is a really bad and dangerous idea (see also our last post “After Earthquake“).

USGS Map of the Nelsonville Earthquake

USGS Map of the Nelsonville Earthquake

While ODNR is trying to downplay the significance of the earthquake, it is crucial  to understand that little is actually known about the geological makeup of the areas used to pump millions of gallons of frackwater into the earth. Geological imaging technology is expensive and most of the data about the underground are not very detailed and often outdated.

According to ODNR, the earthquake occurred around a “known fault”, the “Starr” fault system. The ODNR geological survey map PG-23 (2002) shows the fault system as a ca. 25 mile-long line running from east of Doanville in the northwestern corner of Athens County into Hocking County to about 6 miles west of Ash Cave. Yet, the only scientific study of this fault system appears to be a 35-page paper by M.C. Brannock, titled “The Starr fault system of southeastern Ohio,” which was published in the 1993 edition of the Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. In the article’s abstract, the Starr fault is described as a “a series of high-angle faults, originating in the Precambrian, that occur along a narrow corridor traversing several townships.“

The Starr Fault (as shown on the ODNR PG-23 Map)

The Starr Fault (as shown on the ODNR PG-23 Map)

The ODNR brochure Geofacts No. 13 on the Geology of Ohio states: “…the Precambrian is the most poorly known of the geologic subdivisions in Ohio, in part because Precambrian rocks are nowhere exposed in the state. … These rocks are collectively referred to by geologists as the ‘basement’ because they form the foundation for the overlying Paleozoic rock.”

Interestingly enough, the Youngstown earthquake originated in the Precambrian formation, as well. Moreover, the recent study that conclusively showed that the Youngstown earthquake was caused by the injection of wastewater also asserts: “Most of the previously known earthquakes associated with the fluid injections in the eastern United States have occurred in Precambrian basement…” (Kim, W.-Y.: Induced seismicity associated with fluid injection into a deep well in Youngstown, Ohio, J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth, July 2013, p. 3516).

Although ODNR was quick to point out that the epicenter of the earthquake was more than 11 miles away from the injection wells, it is in fact not clear how far the millions of gallons of wastewater can travel in the porous underground, nor is it known when the sheer weight of the injected fluids will put enough pressure on the geological formation to cause seismic reactions. Given the right conditions, the distance between the injection wells and the epicenter could actually have a lever effect, rendering the ODNR reassurances pointless.

It is in fact completely unclear whether there are any smaller faults and fractures in Athens county, nor is unknown whether the Nelsonville earthquake has caused the formation of any new faults and fractures. After all, the Youngstown earthquake came as a surprise, too, since it occurred, as a March 2012 ODNR report stated, “along a previously unknown fault line.”  The USGS summary of the Nelsonville earthquake (Nov. 20, 2013) confirms, “The region [east of the Rocky Mountains] is laced with known faults but numerous smaller or deeply buried faults remain undetected. Even most of the known faults are poorly located at earthquake depths.”

earthquakeQuote

Moreover even with known faults, USGS explains, it is difficult to determine if it is an active fault. “In most areas east of the Rockies, the best guide to earthquake hazards is the earthquakes themselves,” the report concludes. In other words, we usually only know whether an area is seismically active if and when actual seismic activity is occurring. But this also means that the occurrence of an earthquake in the vicinity of injection wells must not be treated with a cavalier attitude. It is a wake-up call for people and regulators.

It is therefore a step in the right direction that the Athens County Commissioners have asked ODNR to conduct extensive seismic testing in connection with the pending permit application for the K&H 2 wastewater injection well. At the same time, it is disturbing that ODNR officials are cited (in the same Athens News article) with the assertion “that they have done sufficient seismic testing in connection with the K&H permit application, and have seen no reason to do more.” The truth is, however, ODNR has not produced any evidence for what they call “sufficient seismic testing.” The K&H 2 application does not include any such data, and the appended ODNR comments don’t show any such data either.

This careless practice stands in sharp contradiction to the recommendations of the March 2012 ODNR report on the Youngstown earthquake, demanding that future well permissions should be contingent on geological and seismic surveys (p. 18) and asking for a reform to Ohio’s Class II deep injection well program. Among other improvements, this reform would include:

  • Requires a review of existing geologic data for known faulted areas within the state and avoid the locating of new Class II disposal wells within these areas;
  • Requires of a complete suite of geophysical logs (including, at a minimum, gamma ray, compensated density-neutron, and resistivity logs) to be run on newly drilled Class II disposal wells (…);
  • Evaluates the potential for conducting seismic surveys; (p. 18)

The current language in the Ohio Revised Code 1501:9-3-06 (C) does not dictate testing and only authorizes the chief  of the ODNR division of oil and gas to require extensive testing “if deemed necessary,” including “seismic surveys or other methods determined by the chief to assist in identifying potential faulting within the immediate vicinity of the proposed injection well.”

At this point, the only reasonable solution can be that ODNR suspend the K&H 2 injection well permission process and to conduct extensive seismic and geologic studies in Athens County.

(end of part 1 — the following part will focus on the inherent dangers of injection wells)

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One response to “The Earthquake and the Dangers of Injection Wells – Part 1: Geological Uncertainties

  1. Pingback: The Earthquake and the Dangers of Injection Wells – Part 2: The Inherent Dangers of Injection Wells | Slow Down Fracking in Athens County (SD-FRAC)

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