Cracked walls, crumbling brickwork: The legacy of fracking in Oklahoma
Since 2011 the state has seen a dramatic rise in the scope and intensity of earthquakes
When Jon Sinon left California in 2002 for a new life in Oklahoma he thought he was trading earthquakes for tornados. "Now I got both." he says.
He purchased one of the historic brick buildings on the main street of Guthrie, Okla. and opened a shop on the main floor. After a succession of earthquakes there are gaping cracks in the brickwork, and a broken granite arch hangs perilously. There is also a crack through the building's granite nameplate "Oklahoma."
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He says most of the damage happened earlier this year when a magnitude 5.1 quake struck the area.
"You can look at a lot of the brick here in this building is actually starting to pull away. If it falls down I'm in a lot of trouble, I don't know what to do with it. If you can't fix it you can't replace it. It was built in 1901 and it is on the historical registry," he says.
Owning the million-dollar building was his dream come true. Now he's consumed with worry. "It can fall down and I'll be out a lot of money. And we're going to lose a historical place."
He says earthquake insurance was too limited and too expensive to purchase.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of stories of people in Oklahoma shouldering the burden of damage caused by industry-induced earthquakes. In some cases insurance does cover the damage, but in many cases homeowners are on their own.
Fighting the insurance companies
Up the road in Coyle, at a spiritual retreat named for Saint Francis of Assisi, a priest is preparing to do battle with his insurance company over earthquake damage.
Brad Wilson is director of St. Francis of the Woods, a 200-hectare spiritual retreat which includes a library featuring a unique collection of 20,000 books on religion, North American spirituality and eastern orthodoxy.
Wilson bought earthquake insurance, in spite of limited coverage and a high deductible, but he's been unable to collect.
A wave of earthquakes which began in 2011 have left long cracks in the terrazzo flooring and plaster walls of the library. He has watched as small cracks become big.
He removes a painting from the wall to demonstrate. "It started out just the vertical crack in probably December. And then in January the crack moved down the wall to this break here," he says, tracking the intersecting cracks with his index finger.
He says the insurance company has denied his claim because he can't point to a single earthquake that caused all the damage.
"We have days where we'll have three or four a day and you can literally come in after an earthquake or the next morning and it will be deeper and wider, and bigger crack."
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Jackie Dill lives nearby. The retiree gathers wild plants and herbs near her home just outside the town of Coyle. But now her home is damaged, and surrounded by fracking operations and wastewater injection sites. She started feeling earthquakes in 2012, and on one day, she says, she counted 32.
She says she has lost her way of life and can't afford to fix her home. So she's telling anyone who will listen about the toll oil and gas industry practices are taking on the people of Oklahoma.
"I'm in the winter of my years and big oil has taken my home and they're taking my way of life and all I have left is my voice and I'll use it."
No help from state or industry
And even though the state of Oklahoma now concedes the widespread damage from earthquakes, there's nothing it can do to help, says Tim Baker, director of the Oklahoma Corporations Commission, Oil and Gas Division.
"Being a civil matter the District Court is actually the only vehicle there is for homeowners who've had their home damaged to get some resolution," he says.
So District Court is where many homeowners are headed. Oklahoma City attorney Garvin Isaacs has put together a team of lawyers and launched a class-action suit, naming twelve energy companies. The suit, on behalf of 40 clients was filed days after a Jan. 1 earthquake measuring 4.4 rumbled under the affluent Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond.
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"This is to me the biggest issue in the state of Oklahoma right now and we've got to do something about it," says Isaacs.
He says landowners are not only on the hook for damages, but also for diminishing property values.
"Nobody is going to buy that property and move into it when it's been damaged by earthquakes."
Isaacs' suit accuses the energy companies of "reckless indifference and callous disregard," and states that the wells they operate pose "an unreasonable and ongoing threat of harm."
The lawyer won't speculate on how much damage has been caused, nor say how many potential plaintiffs there may eventually be. For now, he's pushing to get the case in front of an Oklahoma state jury.