October 2013, Vol. 25, No.10

All shook up

news Scientists link deep-well injecting, water extraction, and earthquakes 

In 2011 and 2012, nearly a dozen earthquakes were recorded around Youngstown, Ohio, in an area near deep-well injection sites where brine — a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing — was being stored. Scientists later suspected that deep-well injecting was causing these earthquakes. According to one scientist, John Armbruster, professor of seismology and techtonophysics at Columbia University (New York), these were not the first earthquakes associated with deep-well injection sites. 

“Among seismologists, it has been accepted since the 1960s that injecting into the Earth can cause earthquakes,” Armbruster said. Some of the earliest earthquakes near deep-well injection sites were recorded in Denver in the 1960s, he said.  

This year, scientists published further studies about the relationships among deep-well injection, water extraction, and earthquakes. Nicholas van der Elst, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory (Palisades, N.Y.), released the results of a study showing that distant earthquakes can cause tremors at deep-well injection sites. 

Meanwhile, Emily Brodsky, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California–Santa Cruz (UCSC), discovered yet another trigger mechanism for earthquakes: the extraction of water for geothermal energy. Through an analysis of earthquakes in the area near the Salton Sea Geothermal Field in California, Brodsky found that there is a strong correlation between seismic activity and the production of geothermal power, which involves pumping water into and out of an underground reservoir, according to the UCSC website. 

Both studies were published in July on the website of Science magazine. 


A slow buildup to bigger quakes  

For their research, van der Elst and others studied a set of injection wells near Prague, Okla. They found that a huge earthquake in Chile on Feb. 27, 2010, triggered a midsize quake in Oklahoma less than a day later, followed by months of smaller tremors, according to The Earth Institute Columbia University website. 

“This culminated in probably the largest quake yet associated with waste injection, a magnitude 5.7 event which shook Prague [Okla.] on Nov. 6, 2011,” the website says. The researchers also found correlations between earthquakes near Japan in 2011 and Sumatra in 2012 and midsize tremors around injection wells in western Texas and southern Colorado, the website says. 

Van der Elst said he and his team thought these findings were “really interesting … though we’ve seen similar results at natural sites, like Yellowstone Park. But this is the first time it was seen at man-made injection sites.” 

Even the idea that seismic activity is triggered by separate earthquakes that take place far away was once controversial, according to the university website.  

“One of the first cases to be documented was the magnitude 7.3 earthquake that shook California’s Mojave Desert in 1992, near the town of Landers, setting off a series of distant events in regions with active hot springs, geysers, and volcanic vents,” the website says. “The largest was a magnitude 5.6 quake beneath Little Skull Mountain in southern Nevada, 150 mi [241 km] away; the farthest [was] a series of tiny earthquakes north of Yellowstone caldera, according to a 1993 study in Science led by [U.S. Geological Survey] geophysicist David Hill.” 

In all cases, “the remote triggering was a sign of things to come, but it didn’t directly trigger these quakes,” van der Elst explained. 

Scientists still aren’t quite sure why these earthquakes trigger remote tremors, even though they clearly can see it happening.  

 “The big seismic waves could be due to the change in fluid pathways. The triggering mechanisms can be from pumping fluids around,” van der Elst said. 

This means that the next step for researchers will be to understand the role fluids play in the remote triggering phenomenon, van der Elst said. To do this, he and his team have to wait for another earthquake of large magnitude somewhere in the world.  

“I’ve observed the same thing multiple times, but this will be a true test of the theory,” van der Elst said.  


‘Better out than in!’ Not always  

Brodsky’s research wasn’t the first to show a relationship between water extraction for geothermal energy and earthquakes, but she and her team made one significant discovery. 

“We show that the earthquake rate in the Salton Sea tracks a combination of the volume of fluid removed from the ground for power generation and the volume of wastewater injected,” Brodsky said on the UCSC website. 

The team conducted their research at the Salton Sea site, a power plant that is a “flash–steam facility” that pulls hot water out of the ground, flashes it to steam to run turbines, and recaptures as much water as possible for injection back into the ground. “Due to evaporative losses, less water is pumped back in than is pulled out, so the net effect is fluid extraction,” the UCSC website says. 

The researchers chose this site because “the data was there,” Brodsky said. California has some of the best seismic networks in the world, she said, and it is also a state that requires geothermal producers to report when and how much water they withdraw, Brodsky said. 

They studied earthquake records for the region dating from 1981 through 2012, comparing earthquake activity with production data for the geothermal power plant, including records of fluid injection and extraction.  

Their findings show that “we might be able to predict the earthquakes generated by human activities,” Brodsky said. The next step in Brodsky’s study is to see how this system of quakes interacts with neighboring faults. 


Mitigating risk  

Now that scientists have established a connection among deep-well injection, water extraction, and earthquakes, there are precautions that drillers and geothermal producers might be able to take to help reduce the chances of earthquakes.  

“The first step is that you don’t want to pump with high pressure into faults,” van der Elst said, though he admitted that his study shows that “even if you don’t think you’re pumping directly into a fault, the fluids can spread, and the water can make its way into those faults.” 

But drillers should still be aware where they’re pumping their fluid. “If you pay attention to the places where there is seismicity, you can stop pumping,” van der Elst said. “It requires that you ... monitor these sites and take note of the seismic frequency.” 

Brodsky said “one of the big advances of the study is showing how much fluid can lead to how many earthquakes. I’m hoping this will be useful. We all need electricity, but we have to establish an acceptable level of risk.” 

And in areas similar to those where Brodsky researched — near the San Andreas Fault — mitigating risk is particularly important, she said. 


— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T  


When all the water runs dry  

A New Mexico research facility worked with a local WRRF to find new water source when water allocations ran out 


With growing water shortages in the western U.S. because of drought and population expansion, communities are searching for new and additional sources of water. Increasingly, they are looking toward wastewater and water reuse, despite the fact that it continues to be a controversial issue with the public. Thanks to water reuse, the New Mexico State University (NMSU) Agricultural Science Center in Tucumcari was able to resume research that had been on hiatus for years — giving the site and much of its fauna a new lease on life. 


Finding a new water source  

Prior to having water resource recovery facility (WRRF) effluent pumped to the NMSU Agricultural Science Center, the site had relied on surface water, said Leonard Lauriault, professor, superintendent, and forage-crop management scientist in the department of plant and environmental sciences at NMSU. “There’s a lake and a canal system, and it did not provide enough water supply,” he said. 

The allocations of water dwindled vastly over the years. Lauriault said that in 1997 “irrigation was allocating 18 in. [457 mm] of water per water-right acre.” By 2006, the allocation had dropped by half, to 9 in. (229 mm) of water per water-right acre, and by 2011, there were no water allocations at all, he said. 

“We have 170 ac [69 ha] of water rights,” Lauriault said. “We had some years when we couldn’t get any water because of droughts.”  

This led to not only a reduction in research projects but also the death of many tree species on the site. Some of the trees died due to drought, Lauriault said. Those that it didn’t kill outright, it weakened, making them susceptible to attack by insects and diseases that killed them instead, he said. 

Lauriault said the evergreens in particular have suffered. “We lost a grove of Austrian pines,” he said. 

Then, in 2007, the City of Tucumcari got a multimillion dollar grant to upgrade its WRRF, Lauriault said. It also got a $1.7 million water trust board grant from the state of New Mexico to use the facility’s effluent. He said the facility originally was going to route a portion of its 2650 m3/d (700,000 gal/d) effluent west to a nearby cemetery, golf course, and parks, but this would have required crossing too many streets. 

“So, a local farmer with a feedlot approached the [WRRF] to run the pipeline to the east instead of the west,” Lauriault said. But the WRRF couldn’t pursue this because of a prohibition on using public funds for private enterprise, he explained. The farmer then worked with the university to find a compromise: The pipeline would go to the university, and the feedlot owner would pay to extend the pipeline onto his property, Lauriault said. 


Positive results  

In 2012, the WRRF awarded a contract to build the pipeline, and the university signed a contract to buy 300 ac-ft (370,000 m3) of water per year, Lauriault said. Since then, the population of the city has dropped. Now, the university is the only recipient of the water, he said.  

The university now applies 4 ac-ft (4900 m3) per acre, Lauriault said. “It’s about what the land needs to grow alfalfa,” he said. 

Because of this new water supply, the university is able to conduct research at the site with alfalfa, corn, cotton, and soybeans. Lauriault said it’s also given the university an opportunity for new collaborations. “We’re now doing grazing trials with beef cattle,” he said. 

Lauriault also described research on what happens to weed growth when industrial wastewater is applied. Industrial wastewater has a high salt content, he explained, and many weeds react differently to the salt. The project is evaluating how the weeds will fare with the new source of water, which has less salt than other, previous sources. 

Though the university hasn’t been able to develop the irrigation system in its tree section, so far, it is pleased with how successful using effluent has been. 

“It’s a bit early to tell,” Lauriault said. “We’ve only been doing it a little more than a year, and you usually want to wait for 2 to 3 years of results to really make an evaluation, but so far, we’re really excited at what we’re seeing here.”  

Lauriault said the project currently is a one-faculty operation but is looking to bring others on staff soon. The goal is to one day use the land to find out how to use similarly treated effluent to safely grow local crops that can be shipped to nearby cities, since many cities internationally can follow a similar model, he said.  


 — LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T 



A bitter pill  

Popular drug take-back programs limited in scope, funding 


Despite the ability of drug-collection programs to prevent abuse and keep pharmaceuticals out of the environment and collection systems, many programs are underfunded and face numerous challenges, concluded a group of state government leaders, pharmaceutical waste experts, and other stakeholders at the 2013 Pharmaceutical Waste Stewardship Summit.  

The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI; Boston) and the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension (Madison) hosted the summit this summer in Milwaukee, with support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It attracted more than 80 attendees from across the U.S., including Alameda County, Calif., supervisor Nate Miley, who championed the nation’s first extended-producer responsibility (EPR) law for pharmaceuticals. An EPR law would require drug manufacturers to pay for drug-collection and disposal programs. 

“Visionary, steadfast government leaders like supervisor Miley in Alameda County and Joe McDermott in King County [Wash.] are the lynchpin of a successful product-stewardship movement,” said Scott Cassel, CEO of PSI. (McDermott is chairman of the King County [Wash.] board of health.)  

“Alameda County, and now, King County, have set into motion what we expect will be a continued domino effect among state and local governments across the U.S.,” Cassel said. 

The stewardship programs, which hold manufacturers responsible for a product from “cradle to grave,” are modeled on such programs as New York’s E-waste recycling program, which requires electronics manufacturers to provide free, convenient recycling of electronic waste to most consumers in the state. 


Collection programs limited  

Many U.S. communities run their own drug take-back programs, often through collection boxes set up at pharmacies, health agencies, and police departments. These programs often are funded at the state and local government level, largely as a public health and safety issue. 

Colorado runs a voluntary program with 11 drop boxes in pharmacies and at health departments. According to Greg Fabisiak, environmental integration coordinator in the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, the program accepts over-the-counter and prescription drugs but not controlled substances or hypodermic needles. 

Federal regulations restrict the collection of controlled substances (drugs that are commonly abused, such as OxyContin and Vicodin) to law-enforcement employees, such as the police. 

According to Fabisiak, since the program began in 2009, about 13,600 kg (30,000 lb) of drugs have been collected in his state. The program is run by a contractor who collects and transports the drugs from the drop-off locations. Currently, drugs are hauled for disposal in an industrial landfill. 

“We pay about $6.50/lb collected,” Fabisiak said. “That’s fairly expensive. We’re looking at more options.” 

The program is supported by some state funding and donations, Fabisiak said. The only federal support is through the twice-yearly National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 

At the April 27 Drug Take Back Day, 336,800 kg (742,497 lb) of prescription medications were collected from the public at more than 5800 locations, according to the DEA website. However, DEA drug-disposal funding is expected to end later this year, shifting disposal costs back to local and state authorities. 

Fabisiak said that citizens have come to expect the program will continue. “There is a demand for the program, but where is the funding going to be coming from?” he asked. 

Part of the reason the DEA program is ending is passage of the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010, which allows DEA to authorize nonlaw-enforcement entities, such as nursing homes, to collect controlled substances from end users. 

“But even with passage of the act, we’re still in the same boat with regard to lack of funding,” Fabisiak said. The Colorado program should remain intact “as long as we can keep those donations coming,” he said. 

And even with the success of the DEA National Drug Take Back Day and local programs, many unused drugs are still at large. A recent study by PSI and University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension about pharmaceutical waste trends in Wisconsin found that only 2% of leftover drugs are being collected through tak e-back programs. 


Stewardship programs gain momentum  

“EPR for pharmaceuticals is catching on, because it just makes sense,” PSI’s Cassel said at the summit, noting that King County’s recent passage of EPR legislation came less than a year after Alameda County’s. “Through increased stakeholder engagement, greater public outreach and education efforts, and more data gathering and analysis, we can continue to advance pharmaceutical waste stewardship in local and state governments around the country,” Cassel said. 

The King County regulation, which passed in June and went into effect in September, requires drug companies to finance and provide a secure medicine-return system for residents. Residents can bring leftover, expired, and unneeded medicines to secure drop boxes in retail pharmacies or law-enforcement offices throughout the county. 

The Alameda County ordinance, which passed in July 2012, is similar, with the first compliance deadline this year on Nov. 1, according to Kamika Dunlap, policy assistant for the Office of Alameda County. Although the county is being sued by several pharmaceutical trade groups on grounds that the law is unconstitutional, the law will go into effect unless otherwise struck down, Dunlap said. 

The King County regulation also faced opposition from pharmaceutical companies, but at a series of public meetings held during the course of a year, all stakeholders were “very supportive,” said Margaret Shields, policy liaison for the King County Board of Health. 

“The DEA take-back days are only twice a year, and that’s not enough,” Shields said. “This law will give us a comprehensive, year-round program.” 

Colorado’s Fabisiak said his state has no current plans to introduce a similar EPR law. “I can’t say if that’s the proper approach,” he said. “But we’re watching and waiting to see what happens.” 


— Cathy Chang, WE&T