It's become something of a pattern: A quiet town with no history of fault line activity signs a contract with natural gas drillers. Suddenly, it's beset by minor earthquakes. In Youngstown, Ohio, a recent study linked a spate of over 100 earthquakes to the process used to dispose of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
In Greenbrier, Ark., there weren't hundreds of small earthquakes, but thousands. A study done in the region also linked their occurrence to the arrival in town of wastewater disposal wells. As soon as the Arkansas Oil and Gas commission shut down the wells, the quakes stopped. The residents are suing.
According to Reuters, over a dozen residents of Greenbrier have filed five federal lawsuits against the drillers, marking the first legal attempt to link earthquakes to wastewater wells:
The first of the suits, filed in U.S. District Court in Eastern Arkansas, is scheduled to go to trial before Judge J. Leon Holmes next March, though the parties have been engaged in settlement talks, according to the court docket.
The Arkansas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners, an oil and gas industry group, acknowledges that scientists found a possible connection between the disposal wells and the spate of minor quakes in and around Greenbrier.
But J. Kelly Robbins, the group's executive vice president, said the companies had no way of knowing of any such link before wastewater injection began, and he said the operators shut the wells down when questions were raised.
Other civil lawsuits have been raised against natural gas companies in the U.S. -- about 40 since 2009 -- but most of those focused on the health and environmental consequences, and none have made it to trial. And if these new suits succeed, Reuters points out, they won't just target fracking, as wastewater injection wells are used in other types of drilling as well.
The U.S. Geological Survey suspects only a small number of the nation's 30,000 injection wells of causing earthquakes, and the position of the companies being sued seems to be that 1) they couldn't have predicted the quakes, 2) once they found out about the connection, they took the necessary action to stop them from occurring in the future, 3) in any case, the drilling brought billions of investment dollars into Arkansas and boosted the state's natural gas production. "It's something that happened, we addressed it and developed some rules to keep it from happening again and everyone has moved on," Lawrence Bengal, the director of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission, told Reuters. In other words, sometimes consequences just can't be avoided.