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Quake-Plagued Texans 'Shake the Ground' in Austin

Walls and driveways are cracked at homes in and around Azle, TX; sinkholes have wiped out property values; children and horses are scared, and the elderly are rousted from their beds in the middle of the night -- all by a swarm of more than 30 earthquakes since early November that the afflicted blame on drilling waste injection wells in the region.

About two-dozen residents from the Azle area, about 17 miles northwest of Fort Worth, boarded a bus at 5 a.m. Tuesday at their local Walmart and made a nearly four-hour trek to Austin to tell the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) that the quaking must stop. At a minimum, they want operations at area wastewater injection wells suspended until it can be determined whether they are, in fact, the cause of substantially increased seismic activity in the region.

Earlier this month the RRC said it would hire an in-house seismologist to study the seismic events that have occurred in the Barnett Shale in North Texas and the Eagle Ford Shale in the southern part of the state (see Shale Daily, Jan. 7). The search is under way, residents heard from commission staffer Tuesday. The move to bring in an expert followed a town hall meeting held in Tarrant County recently to discuss quaking in the Barnett region (see Shale Daily,Jan. 2).

Seismic activity has long been linked to injection wells, and not just those used by the oil and gas industry. (Years ago, a military waste disposal site was blamed for tremors.) Recently, 100 small earthquakes that hit Northeast Ohio throughout 2011 and into early 2012 were said to be triggered by a now-shuttered wastewater disposal well in Youngstown (see Shale Daily, Sept. 6, 2013). Oklahoma (see Shale Daily, Oct. 25, 2013) and Arkansas (see Shale Daily, March 17, 2011) also have seen increased seismic activity that has been blamed on energy industry waste injection wells.

Back in Texas, a report published in 2012 by the group Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States asserts that there is a link between dozens of small earthquakes in Texas' Barnett Shale and wastewater injection wells (see Shale Daily, Aug. 8, 2012).

Recently, the chairman of the Texas House Energy Resources Committee created a subcommittee to study seismic activity and its potential link to injection wells and natural gas activity. Rep. Myra Crownover (R-Denton) is to head the panel of four. Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), whose district includes Parker and Wise counties, is a member.

Travelers on Tuesday's "Shake the Ground in Austin" bus trip ranged in age from 12 to well into their 70s. They talked about the tremors and the damage they have caused to their homes and quality of life. They also lamented other issues associated with unconventional oil and gas development, such as pollution, the threat of water contamination and other health concerns.

Barbara Brown traveled from Reno, TX, which is about two hours northeast of Fort Worth. As she began speaking, she placed more than a half-dozen prescription bottles on the rostrum while she alluded to medical conditions that manifested themselves four months after the first well went in near where she lives. She mentioned cracks in walls and sinkholes.

"You guys are well aware that that's going on in our area," she said. "I'm here for the same reason as my fellow citizens." Brown said she wants seismic data to be made available online by the RRC.

A number of speakers demonstrated that injection wells and quaking are closely associated in their minds with hydraulic fracturing, faulty well casings and drinking water contamination.

"The problem is it's not just the fracking or the disposal wells, but it's also the drilling..." said speaker Darla Hobbs, who said she is worried about the integrity of cement well casings in the midst of heavy seismic activity.

Twelve-year-old Caitlin Holmsley captured in her comments the frustration expressed by many at the meeting at the idea that anything but the injection wells could be causing the seismic activity.

"I'd like you to help me understand this," she said. "You're telling us that you're injecting thousands of gallons of water with immense pressure into the earth and shortly after earthquakes begin in an area that has never had earthquakes before. And then you tell us that the two things have nothing to do with each other.

"Not only does it cause earthquakes, but it's water injected filled with toxic chemicals that can be deadly...I just want you to stop. What you're doing is wrong, and you're killing off the environment, the economy, the people just so you can make some money."

RRC Chairman Barry Smitherman -- who has been heard during past commission meetings to express frustration with non-lawyers coming before the body -- thanked her for coming to the meeting. Throughout the presentations, Smitherman from time to time politely reminded speakers of time limits but otherwise was mostly silent. The other two RRC commissioners were quieter still.

Cowboy-hatted, guitar-toting Bill Hoffman livened things up a bit with his revision of the Elvis Presley classic "All Shook Up."

My roof's falling in, and I'm doing my best. It hurts so much it's scaring me to death...I'm in Azle; I'm all shook up, he sang.

"I think you might have a bright future, Mr. Hoffman," replied Smitherman.

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