Study links Northstar 1 well to 109 tremors in Youngstown

Staff report


Researchers at the Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University have published a new study that suggests as many as 109 tremors between January 2011 and February 2012 were directly linked to the Northstar 1 injection well on the city’s West Side.

Although it’s nothing new to those living in Youngs-town, where residents became keenly aware of a string of earthquakes that began in 2011 and culminated in a magnitude 4.0 on New Year’s Eve of the same year, the study is the first to suggest 109 small tremors were set off by the injection well, which was closed in 2011 and remains idle today.

Dr. Won-Young Kim of Lamont-Doherty analyzed the Youngstown earthquakes and found that their onset, cessation and even temporary dips in activity were all tied to operations at the Northstar 1 well. Researchers found that the first earthquake was recorded in the city 13 days after the well came online in December 2010 and continued to be responsible for the tremors that persisted into 2012.

The study was published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Solid Earth.

“The earthquakes were centered in subsurface faults near the injection well. These shocks were likely due to the increase in pressure from the deep wastewater injection, which caused the existing fault to slip,” Kim said. “Throughout 2011, the earthquakes migrated from east to west down the length of the fault away from the well — indicative of the earthquakes being caused by an expanding pressure front.”

Last year, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources released a similar report that strongly suggested the well played a part in the earthquakes after the agency said operators drilled too deeply into a layer of basement rock, known as the Precambrian, 9,000 feet below the earth’s surface.

When liquid was pumped at high pressure into the rocks, it caused them to crack, acting as a lubricant that allowed the rocks to slip under the weight of those above them, triggering the tremors, including the six quakes that could be felt throughout Youngstown and surrounding cities and towns.

The well was owned and operated by Northstar Disposal and D&L Energy. The owner of those companies, Ben W. Lupo, has since been charged with violating the Clean Water Act for a separate incident in which he was accused of ordering tens of thousands of gallons of drilling waste to be dumped down a storm drain that led into the Mahoning River. Lupo has pleaded not guilty.

“The combination of the D&L Energy’s Northstar No. 1 injection-well design, the coincidence of earthquake timing with injection activity, the proximity of earthquakes to the well location and high-quality seismic monitoring data leaves very little doubt that injection of oil and gas-production wastewater triggered the earthquakes,” wrote Jeffrey Dick, a professor of geology at Youngstown State University, in a recent edition of Shale Sheet.

In the same column, Dick pointed out that compared with other injection-related earthquakes in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, the Youngstown earthquakes are well understood because of a joint seismic monitoring effort near the site by YSU, Lamont-Doherty and the Ohio Geological Survey that was started after the early tremors were recorded.

There are more than 30,000 Class II injection wells used for wastewater disposal in the U.S., but there have been very few incidents of confirmed induced earthquakes.

More research is being gathered on the topic.

Lamont-Doherty’s study is one of several publications that have been released in recent months exploring the relationship between injection wells and earthquakes.