Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Anger Greets State Officials in Quake-Prone Texas Town

Residents raise their hands who say they've heard a loud "boom" accompanying some recent earthquakes.

Mose Buchele

One speaker asked fellow residents to raise their hands if they've heard a loud "boom" accompanying recent earthquakes.

Azle, Texas - “I’ve got a crack in my hallway,” chuckled Marion LeBert as he stood in the parking lot of Azle High School.

“Oh my! We have sink holes in our yard. And they’ve gotten bigger since these earthquakes,” commiserated Tracy Napier.

The two were among hundreds of townspeople hoping to get answers at a meeting hosted last  night by the  Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s oil and gas industry regulators. The area, in Parker and Tarrant counties, didn’t experience earthquakes until recently. Now, it’s seen a swarm of over twenty minor ones in the last two months, troubling residents and causing damage to some homes. The earthquakes would be the topic of discussion.

Merian Labert, Tracy Napier and traded stories of the quake before the meeting.

Mose Buchele

Marion LeBert, Tracy Napier and Tommy Eldridge (left to right) traded earthquake stories before the meeting.

“I just want to kind of sit back and see what [state regulators] are gonna say,” LeBert told StateImpact Texas. “I’ve lived here 20 years and we never had anything like this till they started all the drilling and the fracking and stuff. All I want to do is get the truth out of them.”

Scientific research has shown how similar quakes are caused when waste water from oil and gas drilling is injected into underground disposal wells. This area of North Texas has many such disposal wells. But the link has not been publicly acknowledged by the Railroad Commission (though agency staff agree it exists in internal emails and PowerPoint presentations obtained by StateImpact Texas). Ahead of last night’s meeting, Railroad Commissioner David Porter had said he would would talk about plans to deal with the quakes, signaling that the Commission was willing to publicly offer some answers.

As the meeting got underway, it quickly became clear that plan had changed.

Porter announced that the format of the meeting had changed to a “listening session,” and passed the unenviable task of moderating to his Chief of Staff, “in the interest of listening more intently.”

An auditorium with a 1,000 person capacity nearly filled up as residents spoke.

Mose Buchele

An auditorium with a 1,000 person capacity nearly filled up as residents spoke.

The first speaker questioned whether the Railroad Commission should be considered unbiased “since there’s so much oil and gas money that goes into the campaign of elected officials.”  The question was met with applause. The response – that the Railroad Commission would not be answering questions – was met with boos.

It was a back-and-forth that characterized much of the evening.

For the next hour and a half residents shared stories of cracked foundations, sink holes, concerns over shifting propane tanks, the cost of earthquake insurance and what the quakes could mean for groundwater quality. The Mayor of the nearby town of Reno, Texas said her community’s City Hall had been damaged. Another resident said she now sleeps in her clothes for fear that she’ll have to run outside in the middle of the night during a quake.

Residents also suggested ways to determine whether disposal wells were at fault.

David Porter (second from left) and staff of the Railroad Commission of Texas met heard from residents of North Texas communities impacts by a swarm of earthquakes.

Mose Buchele

David Porter (second from left) and staff of the Railroad Commission of Texas heard from residents of North Texas communities impacted by a swarm of small earthquakes.

“Why is it we can’t shut the wells down around here for a period of time?” asked Gale Wood, pointing out that this had been done at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. “If we shut them down here for a period of time and nothing happens after a while that would be one way to determine what’s going on.”

A more dramatic solution, shouted from the audience, was to block trucks transporting waste water from entering the area.

At the end of the event, Commissioner Porter promised his Agency would continue to study the issue. As agency staff made an exit, they were followed by a gaggle of reporters. It fell on Milton Rister, Commission Executive Director to answer questions.

He was asked whether the agency was now publicly acknowledging the scientifically-accepted link between earthquakes and disposal wells.

“Well, there are a lot of things that cause earthquakes and I’m not going to get into speculating about,” Rister replied.

“But is it the science now recognized by the agency?” Rister was asked again.

“All I can say is there are a lot of things that cause earthquakes and we’re going to be looking into all of the potential causes including activity related to what the people were concerned about.”

‘It’s Not Disputed’

“I don’t know what the deal is,” Alan Brundrett, Mayor of the town of Azle, told StateImpact Texas after the auditorium had cleared out.

Azle Mayor Alan Brunrett was disappointed by the Railroad Commissions refusal to provide answers or acknowledge that disposal wells have caused earthquakes elsewhere.

Azle Mayor Alan Brunrett was disappointed by the Railroad Commission's refusal to provide answers or acknowledge that disposal wells have caused earthquakes elsewhere.

“I actually chased [Rister] down. The [state] troopers let me go by.  I handed him an article and I said ‘hey look at this!”

Brundrett has been working with the U.S. Geological Survey on an updated quake map that, he says, shows the swarm centering between two disposal wells in the area.

“It’s not disputed,” he said. “I mean there’s a July article by the USGS that’s entitled ‘Injection Induced Seismicity.’ There are like five examples.”

Brundrett believes the Railroad Commission may develop a plan to combat quakes after a study by the U.S. Geological Survey on Azle is complete.

Others in the community are less hopeful.

“Maybe if the ground shakes in Austin,” said one of the speakers. “We’ll get some results.”


  • Great story, Mose!

    • Mose Buchele

      Thanks Joe. I just heard your NPR piece (was on this assignment when it aired) great work on your end as well!

  • richardguldi

    Azel experienced 30 earthquakes in two months in an area that barely had any quakes before fracking began.
    The number of earthquakes has increased dramatically over the past few years within the central and eastern United States,” the United States Geological Survey says on its website. “More than 300 earthquakes above magnitude 3.0 occurred in the three years from 2010-2012, compared with an average rate of 21 events per year observed from 1967-2000.” The USGS says that at some of those locations, disposal wells are behind the quakes.
    Yet, the Railroad Commission tells us there might be a hypothetical link between earthquakes and disposing fracking fluid in abandoned wells. I suppose that if someone hit them on the head with a sledge hammer thirty times in two months, they would ask the tormenter to stop even if the link between the beatings and their pain was hypothetical.
    The epicenter of one of these quakes was only 2.5 miles from the earthen dam. Built in 1932, this dam is rated as a high-hazard dam. Earthquake experts tell me that moderate, shallow quakes close to the surface and close to the dam could produce large enough ground motions to threaten the dam.
    Eagle Mountain Lake contains ten times as much water as Lake Conemaugh that produced the Johnstown flood (1889). With a temporary flow like the Mississippi River, that flood killed 2,200 people and caused $420 million damage. A flood ten times that size could produced $4 Billion dollars of damage.
    Most of us built earthen dams on small creeks as children. None of us was ever
    successful in stopping the water because, water penetrated any small crack and destroyed our dam.
    The image of engineers monitoring the dam with sensor isn’t comforting. By
    the time that cracks are detected, the damage is already done. Ask the Corps of Engineers whether they can even locate, if not to mention, repair a crack in a dam, even if they drain the lake.
    What will happen if the Eagle Mountain Lake dam fails? Lake Worth downstream can’t hold all that water. It will flood down the West Fork of the Trinity River, swooping 270 degrees around downtown Ft Worth, on through Arlington, destroying homes and businesses, and who knows what will happen in Grand
    Prairie and Dallas.
    The property insurance industry tells us that after Katrina most buildings were inadequately insured for flood damage. Afterwards, insurance rates increased dramatically, rendering it nearly impossible to afford flood insurance. Should the Lake Worth dam rupture, business and homeowners insurance rates all over the state will explode. My homeowners insurance just increased $500 per year due to hail storms stemming from climate change. That’s $500 every year for the rest of my life.
    But apart from the financial costs, how will we replace Lake Worth, the source of 10% of our community’s water supply?
    The good news is that earthquakes have stopped in some places when the disposal of fracking fluid ceased. If the Railroad Commission chooses to ignore the danger, they may be held accountable for 20,000 deaths and for $4 Billion dollars of property damage.

    The Railroad Commission should not play roulette with North Texas, just to help out their wealthy campaign donors from the fracking industry.

    • Kim Triolo Feil

      Excellent points Richard Guldi…I just read them out loud to my husband..it is chilling to have those words leave my mouth while trying to grasp the magnitude of that what you describe!

      • richardguldi

        thank you

  • MStevens

    Do you think it would be possible to recall the entire railroad commission? Maybe if we started working on a recall they would get nervous an start doing something.

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