Climate

Oklahoma Residents Sue Energy Companies Over Earthquake Damage

CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki,File

This Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011 file photo of a chimney that toppled and went through the roof at the home of Joe and Mary Reneau are pictured through a second-story screen window in Sparks, Okla.

Oklahoma has been hit by swarms of earthquakes over the last few years, and some residents have had enough.

This week, a group of 14 homeowners in Edmond, Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against 12 energy companies, claiming that the companies’ fracking operations have contributed to this uptick in earthquakes. Specifically, the lawsuit targets the companies’ wastewater disposal wells, claiming that the injection of fracking wastewater into these wells “caused or contributed” to earthquakes and constituted an “ultrahazardous activity.”

In the lawsuit, filed in Oklahoma County court, the residents focus on two earthquakes — of 4.3 and 4.2 magnitude — that struck Edmond on December 29 and January 1. The plaintiffs say they suffered damage from the earthquakes, and that the energy companies were “negligent, careless, and reckless” in their treatment of the earthquake risks surrounding wastewater injection.

“As a direct and proximate result of defendants’ negligence, plaintiffs have suffered and will continue to suffer severe and permanent damage to their persons and property,” the lawsuit states. This damage includes “cracked and broken interior and exterior walls” and “movement of the foundations beneath their dwellings.” These damages have taken a toll on the residents psyches, too, causing “mental and emotional anguish, fear, and worry.”

Wastewater injection has been tied to increased earthquake risk before. The U.S. Geological Survey said in a report last year that many of the earthquakes that have peppered the Midwest since 2009 could be linked to oil and gas companies’ practice of injecting their wastewater deep underground. If wastewater is pumped into a fault, scientists think, it could cause the fault to slip, causing an earthquake. Researchers have linked wastewater injection to earthquakes in Texas and Ohio.

Oklahoma has seen a major uptick in earthquakes in recent years. From 1991 to 2008, Oklahoma experienced no more than three 3.0 magnitude or higher earthquakes every year. Then, in 2009, the state started to see an increase in earthquake activity. In 2014, Oklahoma was the most seismically active state in the lower 48 U.S. states, with 585 quakes. 2015 was even higher, with 857 quakes — more than all the lower 48 states combined.

These earthquakes have also spurred other lawsuits in the state. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled last year that people could sue oil companies for damages claimed to be caused by earthquakes. That was good news for Sandra Ladra, who sued Tulsa-based oil and gas company New Dominion LLC for damages related to a November 2011 earthquake. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling means that her case can proceed. And another lawsuit seeks class-action status for residents affected by earthquakes in multiple Oklahoma counties.