Seismologist says little doubt that injection well caused earthquakes

YOUNGSTOWN — Just to be clear, it’s probably not the fracking that is causing earthquakes in the Mahoning Valley, it’s the brine byproduct being pumped into a separate well, according to a seismologist studying the situation.

Injection well

Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director James Zehringer ordered a halt to operations Dec. 30 at a Youngstown Township fluid injection well. The class two injection well is owned and permitted by Northstar Disposal Services LLC, of Youngstown.

The area surrounding the well has experienced a series of low-level seismic events over the past eight months. While conclusive evidence cannot link the seismic activity to the well, Zehringer is being cautious about the site, according to a department news release.

Following a series of low-level seismic events in the area surrounding the Youngstown Township injection well, ODNR invited Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to position four seismometers in the area to capture more detailed information about seismic activity.

“Information freshly obtained from the Columbia University scientists, and further analyzed by ODNR geological experts, indicates that an earthquake occurred on Dec. 24 approximately two miles below and within a mile of the injection site,” said Zehringer.

That triggered an ODNR agreement with the well’s owner to halt injections until further assessment.

“Without the injections into these wells, these earthquakes wouldn’t have occurred,” said John Armbruster, Columbia University.

So far this year, ODNR’s seismic monitoring network has documented 10 seismic events occurring in 2011 within two miles of this injection well. Each of these events registered at 2.7 magnitude or lower. Generally, only earthquakes that register above 4 magnitude are known to cause surface damage. As a relative measure, a 4 magnitude event would release approximately 40 times the energy of a 2.7 magnitude event.

Seismologist

John Armbruster, a seismologist with the Lamon-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, came to Youngstown and set up seismographs and began recording the quakes Nov. 30. His goal was to determine the precise locations of the earthquakes, how deep they were occurring, and state officials wanted to know the location of the quakes in comparison to the injection well located on Salt Springs Road on Youngstown’s west side.

The most recent earthquake hit Dec. 31 with a measurement of 4.0 on the Richter scale.

Don’t blame fracking

Armbruster says it’s not the fracking process that is to blame for the earthquakes.

“Fracking only takes a day or two. That’s not long enough to stimulate earthquakes. I don’t think that is the problem,” said Armbruster.

Earthquakes in the Mahoning Valley were not something you heard much about until 2011. Armbruster said that it is one reason why the subject is being discussed so much.

Armbruster said the brine water waste being placed in the injection well began in December 2010, but no one from the state level has told him how much has been deposited.

It’s also not known how long it takes for the fluid to move around beneath earth and to potentially cause the earthquakes.

“The fault zone acts like a big hydraulic jack and the fluid being injected at the top is acting like a pump at the surface. It then works at pumping the jack and causes the fault to move, which is the earthquakes being felt,” said Armbruster.

Armbruster said he feels the earthquakes were sitting underground waiting to happen — just when, would have been the question. He said they could have happened now or 1,000 years from now, but they were waiting, and there would have been no way to predict them.

He said more information about the pattern of injections occurring at the site would have provided more information about the earthquake occurrence.

Summing up evidence

“Evidence in total is quite convincing to me. It’s the relation of time and space. Youngstown had been too quiet. I found the evidence too convincing.

“Without the injections into these wells, these earthquakes wouldn’t have occurred,” said Armbruster.

Other sites at risk?

According to the ODNR, there are 177 class 2 deep well injection sites operating in Ohio.

Armbruster said while he does relate the injection wells to the earthquakes, he does not have a reason why this well may have caused the quakes and the other 176 in Ohio have not.

“This well is unlucky,” said Armbruster.

It’s also not known if the other wells have been associated with other earthquakes.

The area where the Mahoning County injection well is located is near Youngstown State University, which is equipped with a seismograph and the area is fairly populated, making it easier to acknowledge the quakes, the scientist said.

He does recommend the monitoring of other injection wells to find out if quakes are happening near them as well.

About the Author

Kristy Foster Seachrist lives in Columbiana County raising sheep and horses. She earned her degree from Youngstown State University and has worked in both print and broadcast journalism. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/fosterk96. More Stories by Kristy Foster Seachrist

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