A well used to dispose of wastewater from oil and gas drilling almost certainly caused a series of 11 minor quakes in the Youngstown area since last spring, a seismologist investigating the quakes said Monday.
Research is continuing on the now-shuttered injection well in Youngstown and seismic activity, but it might take a year for the wastewater-related rumblings in the earth to dissipate, said John Armbruster of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y.
Brine wastewater dumped in wells comes from drilling operations, including the fracking process to extract gas from underground shale that has been a source of concern among environmental groups and some property owners. Injection wells have also been suspected in quakes in Arkansas, Colorado and Oklahoma, Armbruster said.
Tribune Chronicle / Dan Pompili
The Northstar Disposal Systems brine injection well in Youngstown is being looked at as a potential cause of a series of earthquakes in the Mahoning Valley this year. Northstar voluntarily closed the well Friday so the site could be tested.
Thousands of gallons of brine were injected daily into the Youngstown well that opened in 2010 until its owner, Northstar Disposal Services LLC, agreed Friday to stop injecting the waste into the earth as a precaution while authorities assessed any potential links to the quakes.
After the latest and largest quake Saturday at 4.0 magnitude, state officials announced their beliefs that injecting wastewater near a fault line had created enough pressure to cause seismic activity. They said four inactive wells within a five-mile radius of the Youngstown well would remain closed. But they also stressed that injection wells are different from drilling wells that employ fracking.
Armbruster said Monday he expects more quakes will occur despite the shutdown of the Youngstown well.
"The earthquakes will trickle on as a kind of a cascading process once you've caused them to occur," he said. "This one year of pumping is a pulse that has been pushed into the ground, and it's going to be spreading out for at least a year."
Eugene Chini, supervisor for ODNR Division of Oil and Gas in Mahoning County, said the department has been working with Northstar and D&L to monitor pressures at the site over the weekend.
"They're making arrangements to flow the well back today or Wednesday to take all the pressure off," he said.
Chini said D&L founder and main shareholder Ben Lupo is cooperating in the department's efforts to investigate the well and its possible ties to seismic activity.
"They're probably going to cement off the lower portion on that well and one other, in order to eliminate any future pumping into the basement rock," Chini said.
The quakes began last March with the most recent on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve each occurring within 100 meters of the injection well. The Saturday quake could be felt up to hundreds of miles away but caused no serious injuries or property damage. Chini said there is no known damage to the well.
Youngstown Democrat Rep. Robert Hagan on Monday renewed his call for a moratorium on fracking and well injection disposal to allow a review of safety issues.
"If it's safe, I want to do it," he said in a telephone interview. "If it's not, I don't want to be part and parcel to destruction of the environment and the fake promise of jobs."
He said a moratorium "really is what we should be doing, mostly toward the injection wells, but we should be asking questions on drilling itself."
A spokesman for Gov. John Kasich, an outspoken supporter of the growing oil and natural gas industry in Ohio, said the shale industry shouldn't be punished for a fracking byproduct.
"That would be the equivalent of shutting down the auto industry because a scrap tire dump caught fire somewhere," said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols.
The industry-supported Ohio Oil and Gas Association said the rash of quakes was "a rare and isolated event that should not cast doubt about the effectiveness" of injection wells.
Environmentalists are critical of the hydraulic fracturing process, called fracking, which utilizes chemical-laced water and sand to blast deep into the ground and free the shale gas.