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Quakes Jeopardize Ohio City's Economic Recovery


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This next report raises the question of how people can cause earthquakes. Youngstown, Ohio shook on New Year's Eve.

WERTHEIMER: It was the latest of many small quakes, and officials are asking if there's a connection between them and the process of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. It involves pumping fluid deep underground to crack shale and drive natural gas to the surface.

INSKEEP: Ohio has been taking the waste water that is left over from that process and disposing of it in wells. That makes money for Youngstown, but leaves people asking about the side effects. In a moment, we'll ask what the science says. We start in Ohio with Tim Rudell of member station WKSU.

TIM RUDELL, BYLINE: Natural gas deposits that set off the drilling frenzy in Pennsylvania and other Eastern states extend under Ohio. The drillers moving west are bringing billions of dollars with them, buying up leases, equipment and pipe. Youngstown is looking at a double benefit: from new wells and from supplying pipe.

Steel manufacturer V&M Star recently committed nearly a billion dollars to build new mills here to make that pipe. But then the earthquakes started, 11 over just the last nine months, all near what's called a deep-injection, brine disposal well on Youngstown's east side.

Bob Liller's house was near the epicenter of the biggest quake on New Years Eve - a 4.2 quake on the Richter scale. He's a plumber picking up supplies at Girard Hardware, a squeaky-floor, old-fashioned hardware store also near the temblor's center.

BOB LILLER: Well, I was in bed sick. My wife was laying next to me, and the house started hopping, headboard started hopping. So we kind of jumped to the front of the bed. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. It was serious.

RUDELL: Girard Hardware owner George Thomas and plumber Liller agree that the quakes raise real concerns.

GEORGE THOMAS: It's money. It's just - but, you know, you can't kill the earth. But...

LILLER: I'd like to see the drilling and all the money and everything, but I don't want the house to come down around my ears. OK.


RUDELL: Tina Kratsas owns Simone's Salon. She and daughter Nicole say they felt the New Year's Eve quake, too. It was at least 40 times stronger than the earlier quakes.

TINA KRATSAS: I was doing someone's hair, and I heard like a big ba-boom, and the building just shook.

NICOLE KRATSAS: It was a huge, loud sound. It was like a train.

RUDELL: Tina Kratsas wonders about the environmental risks from the drilling boom, and says that boom has yet to do much for her business. But George Thomas says his business has picked up, and plumber Bob Liller says his has, too.

LILLER: So, hopefully, this will put everything back on track to where we start piping some new housing again. Or they'll add on to the house. So that's my hope. The other thing is I don't want to be thrown out of bed, either.

RUDELL: After the last and relatively strong earthquake, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources shut down the suspect brine disposal well, pending further study. But there are 176 other such wells throughout the state, and Ohio does seem to be a favorite dumping ground for the tens of millions of gallons of waste fluid from the drilling boom all over the East.

That may be because, until the Youngstown incidents, no Ohio injection disposal wells were every associated with seismic disturbances, even though some of them have been operating since the 1970s. But Youngstown lawyer Alan Wenger, a specialist in gas and oil leases, thinks the wells are in Ohio in part because of lax regulatory policy.

ALAN WENGER: It's hard to explain. It's hard for me to understand. And, you know, folks that don't work with this stuff I'm sure are pretty outraged at, you know, why are we taking everyone's crap here in Ohio? It may become a major political issue that someone's going to have to answer for.

RUDELL: Whether it will potentially move Ohio's regulatory approach toward greater environ protection or specifically restrict brine disposal wells, Youngstown's recent spate of earthquakes has residents and regulators alike pondering just what kind of trade-offs are warranted for the sake of jobs and the promise of economic recovery.

For NPR news, I'm Tim Rudell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Rudell