Arkansas Couple Sues Companies over Recent Earthquakes

By Jeannie Nuss | June 13, 2011

A couple in an earthquake-ravaged pocket of central Arkansas is blaming recent seismic activity on companies that inject wastewater into the ground near their home.

An attorney for Sam and April Lane filed a lawsuit in May in Faulkner County, where the couple lives, seeking class-action status. The lawsuit claims the companies’ disposal wells are “directly linked” to hundreds of quakes that have rumbled through the region since last fall. A magnitude-2.2 quake hit about 45 miles north of Little Rock early on June 9.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re responsible,” Sam Lane said.

The state’s Oil and Gas Commission has taken a more cautious approach. The commission is looking at whether the quakes are related to the wells, which dispose of wastewater from drilling operations that fracture rocks deep beneath the surface. Water used in the process is later injected into the earth.

So far, the commission has been mum on its findings.

“We’re not ready to come out with a correlation or connection one way or the other,” said Shane Khoury, deputy director and general counsel for the commission. A public hearing is scheduled for July 26.

The commission earlier this year asked two of the companies in question — Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy and Clarita Operating LLC of Little Rock — to cease operations of their disposal wells while it finished its study. Chesapeake’s assets in the organically rich Fayetteville Shale have since been acquired by another company, BHP Billiton Petroleum. The Lanes are suing all three companies.

The area’s seismic activity dramatically decreased after the two injection wells closed, said Scott Ausbrooks, a geo-hazards supervisor for the Arkansas Geological Survey. But there’s been no official pronouncement linking the quakes to the wells.

So, without results from some governing body, Sam Lane, 28, decided to conduct a study of his own. He compared injection patterns from the wells with nearby earthquakes and pored over similar incidents across the country.

He says the companies were to blame for the damage sustained to their home — the cracks in the bricks and along walls. Plus, Lane says, the quakes have translated to higher insurance prices and lower property values.

So, he wants money for him and his wife and for any others who join them.

“We’re not trying to get rich or anything off this,” Lane said. “I just want compensation for the damage to my home.”

One of the companies in question — Clarita Operating, LLC, of Little Rock — denied the Lanes’ allegations in a court document filed Wednesday and asked the court to dismiss the complaint.

The other companies — Chesapeake Energy and BHP Billiton Petroleum — have not filed responses yet.

David D. Wilson, a Little Rock attorney who represents BHP, said he plans to file a response next week. A spokesman for the company declined to comment on the pending case. A spokesman for Chesapeake did not return a message seeking comment.

Most of the earthquakes to hit the region, including the one on June 9, have been too small for humans to feel, and authorities say there haven’t been many reports of damage. Geologists say quakes of magnitude 2.5 to 3.0 are generally the smallest felt by humans.

But the quakes also included a magnitude-4.7 near Greenbrier in February. That was the most powerful to hit the state in 35 years.

The state’s look at whether injection wells are tied to earthquakes boils down to the nuts and bolts of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a process used to free up natural gas from underground rock formations.

In Arkansas’s Fayetteville Shale, which is a major source of natural gas, fracking requires injecting pressurized water to create fractures deep in the ground. Some of that wastewater is then injected deep into the ground in disposal wells, like the two that were temporarily shut down in central Arkansas.

While the state is looking at the quakes and the injection wells, Khoury said there’s no evidence to point to a link between seismic activity and the rest of the fracking process.

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