LOWELLVILLE - On the heels of five confirmed earthquakes that have hit the Mahoning Valley in a 25-hour period between Monday and Tuesday mornings, a group studying seismic activity in the area claims the problem is greater than most realize.
Officials with Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory said there have been 11 shocks in the Youngstown area in one week, from March 4 to 10.
"Magnitudes of these shocks range from 1.2 to 3.0," said Won-Young Kim, a Lamont-Doherty seismologist. "No shocks were recorded in February."
The recent seismic activity came to the forefront Monday morning as the U.S. Geological Survey recorded four earthquakes from 2:26 to 11:44 a.m., the largest a 3.0-magnitude shock.
The epicenter of that first and biggest earthquake was tracked by the USGS to directly below Lowellville's Carbon Limestone landfill, the site of oil and gas drilling.
The other shocks Monday ranged in magnitude from 2.2 to 2.6, and were clustered to the east and west of the initial epicenter.
As a result of the first four earthquakes, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources shut down all drilling "until further assessments can take place."
Then, at about 3:01 a.m. Tuesday, the USGS recorded a 2.1-magnitude tremor just south of Lowellville.
In a statement released Monday evening, spokesman Mark Bruce said that while ODNR has halted all oil and gas operation at the site, initial information did not indicate the seismic activity was related to Class II injection activities. Additionally, Hilcorp has no active injection or wastewater disposal wells on the property, and only one of the wells is currently producing oil and gas.
However, according to ODNR, there are four injection wells drilled in the area around Lowellville. It is unclear whether they are in operation.
Efforts to contact Hilcorp and ODNR for comment Tuesday night were unsuccessful.
For Kim, the seismic activity occurring in such close proximity to oil and gas activity is too much to overlook.
He praised ODNR for taking the "necessary" step by halting drilling operations while the investigation is under way, but he went even further.
"It is wise to make a full stop, no more drilling or injection at the site," Kim said in a statement released Tuesday night. "We learned from Youngstown in 2011, that earthquakes can be triggered by fluid injected into area with the subsurface weak zone (faults)."
According to Kim, once earthquakes are triggered, the frequency of similar seismic events has a tendency to increase.
"The waste fluid injection into deep wells is a reasonable method of disposing waste, and rarely trigger earthquakes when the fluid encounters weak faults," Kim said. "However, once it triggers earthquakes, there seem to be not (many) solutions to it - lower the pressure, slow down the injection rate, (but) the potential will still be there."
State Rep. Bob Hagan of Youngstown voiced his displeasure with ODNR, whose activity he called "suspicious" regarding the investigation.
"I called them at 9 o'clock last night to work with them and find out what they know and what's happening," Hagan said Tuesday afternoon. "I called them again at 3 o'clock today, but heard nothing.
"Then, I called the department's legislative liaison, and this is the third time I've called and received nothing back.I told them, if they continue to not respond, I'm going to hold a press conference in front of the ODNR headquarters."
According to Hagan, the lack of communication leads him to question the intentions of the process.
"It begs the question, what are you hiding?" Hagan asked. "I want to know what's going on. They're doing one of two things, either they're hiding the truth for the oil and gas company or they are looking out for the public.
"It would appear to be the former," he said.