Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hydrofracking sparks earthquake concerns

ROCHESTER -- In early 2001, people living in northern Steuben County experienced something that many of them had never felt before -- a series of earthquakes, the largest of which was more powerful than any naturally occurring tremor in New York in a decade.

Damage was minimal but nerves were jangled. Because the epicenters were in an area not known to be quake-prone, officials looked for an explanation. They found one that might seem improbable.

The earthquakes were man-made, New York officials suspected -- the result of test injections of millions of gallons of water into two-mile-deep disposal wells built as part of a natural-gas storage operation being developed in the Town of Avoca.

State officials ordered a halt to the well tests. The elaborate gas storage facility was never finished and the site eventually abandoned.

The incident, which largely went unnoticed outside of Avoca and neighboring Cohocton, has been given fresh currency today because of the growing controversy in New York and nationwide over the natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing.

The surge in hydrofracking has meant a surge in injection wells to dispose of drilling wastewater -- and those disposal wells are increasingly being linked to small earthquakes. Clusters of "induced" quakes in the Dallas-Forth Worth area and in Arkansas are prominent recent cases.

"There's a long list of examples," said Robert Ross, a geologist and associate director for the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca. "There's no question that small earthquakes can be induced."

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