Shake, rattle, and Happy New Year

Posted by By at 3 January, at 10 : 19 AM Print

Eighty-two-year-old Charles Kihm said he was making something to eat when he heard a rumble and felt his home shake. He thought a vehicle had run into his abode, The Associated Press reported Sunday.

What Kihm felt and heard was a 4.0 earthquake that shook the Youngstown, Ohio area early the morning of New Years Eve Day.

Nearly a dozen earthquakes, most of them minor tremblers, have rattled the northeastern area of Ohio in the past year. The one Kihm thought was a car ramming his home followed one a week earlier in the same area that weighed in at 2.5 magnitude.

I don’t often get to say “I told you so,” and I didn’t this time, really, but a week ago in this space I mentioned that “with reason based on history, I wonder about the eventual effects of our blasting fractures in geologic structures a mile-and-a-half beneath our homes and businesses.”

Saturday’s quake was about five miles northwest of Youngstown and 1.4 miles deep.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director James Zehringer announced, the day before the area’s biggest (so far) ‘quake, that one Marcellus Shale wastewater disposal well had been shut down while officials researched whether it might be involved in the shakes. After Saturday’s rumbler, officials announced four additional wells would not be opened, and scientists have recommended that operations cease at all wells within a five-mile radius of the first shut-down well site.

The involved wells are injection sites used for disposal of wastewater recovered from the fracking process used to extract natural gas from Marcellus shale.

Fracking – a colloquialism for “hydraulic fracturing” – begins with a well drilled about 1.5 miles down and as much as 2.5 miles horizontally through shale filled with natural gas. A few million gallons of water, some specially coated sand and a mix of chemicals is injected into the well under high pressure, fracturing the shale, filling the cracks with the sand to hold it open, and allowing the gas to escape back up the well.

When the gas initially releases, it pushes the water back to the surface where it is collected. Some is reused, but eventually it must be put somewhere – hence the injection wells. Injecting it deep into the earth is less expensive than building new wastewater treatment plants to make the water clean enough to dump into nearby rivers.

Scientists believe the fluid is causing faults deep underground to slip and crack as the injected water migrates.

Earthquakes have been reported in northern Ohio since at least 1823. They undoubtedly occurred before that, but apparently no one thought to write them down.

Our planet’s surface is supported on about a dozen tectonic plates that constantly push against one another. When the pushing pressure becomes too great, they sometimes slip suddenly – and Fukushima nuclear power plant, for instance, becomes a major news story. Sometimes they don’t slip, and a whole section of plate buckle, which is how the Appalachian Mountains happened.

The plate joint nearest Ohio is way out under the Atlantic Ocean, but there are many smaller faults, known and unknown, under what we call the U.S. of A. Sometimes, without any discernable aid from humans, they rearrange themselves. One such release shook a large portion of the East Coast in August. It was centered near Richmond, Va., measured 5.9 on the Richter Scale, caused cracks in the Washington Monument, more than 100 miles away, and was felt from North Carolina to Massachusetts. It was not, according to officials, related to Marcellus Shale gas production.

Saturday’s 4.0 Youngstown ‘quake shook buildings in the area, but no serious damage was reported. Some lamps fell from tables, and shaking was reported felt in western Pa. It was, say scientists and Ohio officials, related to Marcellus drilling. The shaking likely will stop when the new pressures equalize.

Although there are 177 similar injection wells around Ohio, they so far have not been associated with any earthquakes. Maybe the rock deep below Youngstown is less stable to start with. Maybe drillers just picked a bad spot to dispose of their waste water.

Photo by Tom Owad

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This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at john@JohnMesseder.com - Email jmesseder

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