Amy Sancetta / AP
With the skyline of Youngstown, Ohio in the distance, a brine injection well owned by Northstar Disposal Services LLC is seen. The company halted operations at the well, which disposes of brine used in gas and oil drilling, after a series of small earthquakes hit the Youngstown area.
A dozen earthquakes that struck Ohio in 2011 appear to have been induced by the workings of a wastewater well, the state Department of Natural Resources said Friday, as it announced new rules for the disposal of a fracking byproduct because of its apparent link to the tremors.
The Youngstown, Ohio, area experienced the quakes – ranging from 2.1 to 4.0 magnitude – starting in March 2011. A 4.0 quake on Dec. 31 prompted Gov. John Kasich to order a moratorium that is still in place on six Class II deep injection wells.
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking involves freeing the gas by injecting water into the earth. The water used in that process then needs to be disposed of. But, since municipal water treatment plants aren't designed to remove some of the contaminants found in the wastewater, drillers typically re-inject it into the ground.
The seismic events were clustered in the Youngstown area less than a mile around the Northstar 1 wastewater well, which is covered by the moratorium.
“Geologists believe induced seismic activity is extremely rare, but it can occur with the confluence of a series of specific circumstances,” the natural resources department said in a statement. “After investigating all available geological formation and well activity data, ODNR regulators and geologists found a number of co-occurring circumstances strongly indicating the Youngstown area earthquakes were induced.”
Northstar 1 was one of 177 operational deep wells mostly used for oil and gas fluid waste disposal. The well – drilled 200 ft. into the basement rock formation known as the Precambrian layer -- began getting injections of wastewater in December 2010, a few months before the quakes began.
Scott Anderson, senior policy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund’s energy program, said he wasn’t surprised that the Ohio department found a link between the quakes and the well, noting that a similar situation led to a 4.7 quake in Arkansas on Feb. 27, 2011.
It’s not clear how much damage the small Ohio quakes caused, though the one on New Year’s Eve led to a few cracks in plaster and a damaged chimney, according to The Vindicator newspaper in Youngstown.
"It is the disposal of wastewater in deep injection wells that’s the culprit here, as distinct from hydraulic fracturing," Anderson said.
In response to the findings, the state Department of Natural Resources announced new regulations for transporting and disposing of the wastewater, also known as brine. Those standards include requiring operators to supply extensive geological data before drilling – including the existence of known geological faults -- and to implement state-of-the-art pressure and volume monitoring devices. It also prohibits any new wells from being drilled into the affected rock formation.
Anderson welcomed the Ohio changes but said he believed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should do more to ensure there won’t be similar earthquakes elsewhere in the country.
“What’s important is that people not locate those wells in seismically active areas and also it’s important that people not inject at too high a pressure into a formation that’s vulnerable to seismic activities,” he said.
More content from msnbc.com and NBC News
- Ranting flight attendant reportedly subdued by passengers
- Cops: Boy flees after couple forces him to kneel 9 hours a day for 10 days
- With tensions high in Mideast, evangelical Christians tighten embrace of Israel
- Homeless men spring into action to assist with difficult arrest