From: Mother Jones
Turns out that when a barely regulated industry injects highly pressurized wastewater into faults, things can go terribly wrong.
-By Michael Behar
AT EXACTLY 10:53 P.M. on Saturday, November 5, 2011, Joe and Mary Reneau were in the bedroom of their whitewashed and brick-trimmed home, a two-story rambler Mary's dad custom-built 43 years ago. Their property encompasses 440 acres of rolling grasslands in Prague, Oklahoma (population 2,400), located 50 miles east of Oklahoma City. When I arrive at their ranch almost a year later on a bright fall morning, Joe is wearing a short-sleeve shirt and jeans held up by navy blue suspenders, and is wedged into a metal chair on his front stoop sipping black coffee from a heavy mug. His German shepherd, Shotzie, is curled at his feet. Joe greets me with a crushing handshake—he is 200 pounds, silver-haired and 6 feet tall, with thick forearms and meaty hands—and invites me inside. He served in Vietnam, did two tours totaling nine years with the Defense Intelligence Agency, and then, in 1984, retired a lieutenant colonel from the US Army to sell real estate and raise cattle. Today, the livestock are gone and Joe calls himself "semiretired" because "we still cut hay in the summers."
On that night in November, just as he and Mary were about to slip into bed, there was "a horrendous bang, like an airliner crashing in our backyard," Joe recalls. Next came 60 seconds of seismic terror. "The dust was flying and we were hanging onto the bed watching the walls go back and forth." Joe demonstrates by hunching over and gripping the mattress in their bedroom. He points to the bathroom. "The mirror in the vanity exploded as if somebody blew it out with a shotgun." When the shaking stopped, Joe surveyed the damage. "Every corner of the house was fractured," he says. The foundation had sunk two inches. But most frightening was what Joe discovered in the living room: "Our 28-foot-tall freestanding chimney had come through the roof." It had showered jagged debris onto a brown leather sofa positioned in front of their flat-screen TV. Joe shows me the spot. "It's Mary's favorite perch. Had she been here…" He chokes up.
The earthquake registered a magnitude 5.7*—the largest ever recorded in Oklahoma—with its epicenter less than two miles from the Reneaus' house, which took six months to rebuild. It injured two people, destroyed 14 homes, toppled headstones, closed schools, and was felt in 17 states. It was preceded by a 4.7 foreshock the morning prior and followed by a 4.7 aftershock.
The quake baffled seismologists. The only possible culprit was the Wilzetta Fault, a 320-million-year-old rift lurking between Prague and nearby Meeker. "But the Wilzetta was a dead fault that nobody ever worried about," says Katie Keranen, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Oklahoma. We're driving in her red SUV, just south of the Reneaus' property, when she stops to point out where the quake tore open a footwide fissure across State Highway 62. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a database of seismically risky areas. Its assessment of the Wilzetta Fault, Keranen notes, was "zero probability of expected ground motion. This fault is like an extinct volcano. It should never have been active."