The Oklahoma Corporation Commission is telling operators to shut down 35 disposal wells that may have played a role in a 5.6-magnitude earthquake that shook at least six states Saturday, Gov. Mary Fallin said.
The disposal wells, which are linked to fracking and other industries that need to dispose of toxic waste water by injecting it deep into the earth, have recently drawn concern that they may actually induce earthquakes.
“This is a mandatory directive,” Fallin said.
The commission, which regulates fuel, oil, gas, public utilities and transportation industries, is investigating to determine the epicenter of the quake that hit Pawnee, said commission spokesman Matt Skinner.
The Environmental Protection Agency is also investigating, Fallin said.
Skinner says earthquakes in Oklahoma are generally not directly caused by fracking, but rather by pressure from the disposal wells, which are used by the industry to get rid of the toxic waste water that comes out of the earth along with oil and gas.
“The disposal wells dispose into the state’s deepest formation, the Arbuckle formation, which is right above what we call the basement,” Skinner said. The basement is above where the critical faults lie that shift and make earthquakes.”
Those disposal wells within five miles of the 10-mile section of the fault in question are to be shut down within seven days, and all the other wells must be shut down within 10 days, Fallin said.
Controversial disposal method
Oil and gas drillers and other industries use the disposal wells to inject toxic waste water deep into the earth, which raises questions about possible pollution of the water supply.
The wells are used to dispose of fracking waste.
Fluid injection is a controversial tactic tied to hydraulic fracturing, the drilling technique known as “fracking” that has dramatically increased U.S. oil and gas production by using water pressure to force oil out of underground pools. When oil and gas is pumped out of the ground, salty water often flows out with it.
This water, which can also contain heavy metals and other pollutants, is typically injected under high pressure back into disposal wells — a practice that the geological agency has said can induce earthquakes.
Saturday’s earthquake, which some people described as the most powerful in memory, rendered six buildings in Pawnee Nation uninhabitable, Fallin said. Rural Pawnee County and the city of Pawnee had at least six buildings damaged, with one homeowner suffering minor injuries, Fallin said.
The earthquake damaged at least one historic building in Pawnee, city officials told CNN.
“It’s an old historical building about 100 years old. It’s still standing but some of the outer layers of sandstone fell. It could be cosmetic damage. We don’t know yet,” said Pawnee Mayor Brad Sewell.
Fallin issued a declaration of emergency for Pawnee County to start the process of “helping individuals, families and businesses impacted by the earthquakes” and help them request any necessary assistance.
The earthquake was also felt in Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, Nebraska and Iowa, according to the US Geological Survey.
“A quake this size would shake for about 15 seconds and it was a shallow quake, about 7 kilometers (4.35 miles) deep,” said Randy Baldwin, a USGS geophysicist.
With earthquakes in the central and eastern United States, “the ground is softer, so the seismic waves have a much farther travel distance then an earthquake in California or Nevada,” said another USGS geophysicist, Robert Sanders.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is checking bridges for damage and structural engineers are assessing building safety, according to Fallin. The governor also said no “concerning structural problems” in the state’s highways and bridges have been found.
There have been a total of 11 earthquakes in the same area Saturday, the USGS said. The largest was at 7:02 a.m. (8:02 a.m. ET), with the preliminary 5.6 magnitude. The other quake magnitudes ranged from 2.7 to 3.6.
Despite minimal damage, the quake set off anxious speculation on social media.