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.
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.
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.
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.
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
out than in!’ Not always
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
new water source
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.
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.
170 ac [69 ha] of water rights,” Lauriault said. “We had some years when we
couldn’t get any water because of droughts.”
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.
said the evergreens in particular have suffered. “We lost a grove of Austrian
pines,” he said.
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.
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.
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.
university now applies 4 ac-ft (4900 m3) per acre, Lauriault said.
“It’s about what the land needs to grow alfalfa,” he said.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
A bitter pill
Popular drug take-back programs limited in
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.
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.
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.)
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.,”
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.
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
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.
restrict the collection of controlled substances (drugs that are commonly
abused, such as OxyContin and Vicodin) to law-enforcement employees, such as
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
programs gain momentum
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 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.”
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.”