Ohio—specifically the town of Youngstown, Ohio—has been hit with 11 earthquakes over the past year that look to be related to storing wastewater from hydraulic fracturing or fracking operations in underground wells. As a result, on Sunday, Jan. 1, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced that it was halting operations at five wells in Mahoning County owned by Northstar Disposal Services LLC used to store oil and gas drilling wastewater. The decision came one day after a 4.0 earthquake.
The process of storing fracking wastewater involves injecting the wastewater into underground wells thousands of feet deep which may create prime conditions for low-level seismic activity. According to an article in Reuters, “the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission voted to ban wells for the disposal of natural gas drilling fluids in the area” this past July after one area “experienced a series of small earthquakes.”
The danger of wastewater injection giving rise to earthquakes is legitimate, according to geologists, and depends on how close the wastewater is injected near an existing fault line. Dr. Won-Young Kim, a Columbia University expert who examined possible connections between fracking and seismic activity for the state of Ohio, said, according to CNN: “that a problem could arise if fluid moves through the ground and affects ‘a weak fault, waiting to be triggered.’ He explained the underground waste ‘slowly migrates’ and could cause issues miles away, adding that the danger could persist for some time as the fluid travels and seeps down toward the fault.”
Earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio, are extremely rare—with none in the area as far back as 1980 according to records. While the U.S. Geological Survey reports that Ohio is far from the major tectonic plates, it still has known faults and likely others that are “smaller or deeply buried” that have yet to be discovered. According to the Reuters article: “A 2.1 magnitude quake, the first of 11 in 2011, was reported on March 17. More were reported in August, September, October, November and December.” The town is home to 177 disposal wells at present which are 9,000 feet deep. Officials are monitoring the site and have not yet determined whether they will need to plug wells or change how they operate to ensure public safety.