Fear, Home Damage, and Dismayingly Few Answers at Townhall on Azle Earthquakes

The Azle High auditorium was filled near to capacity Thursday evening with an occasionally raucous crowd that demanded answers state regulators couldn't -- or weren't willing -- to answer about why, over the last two months, earthquakes in a seismically silent area have grown in number and intensity.

Peer-reviewed research out of the University of Texas and SMU have discovered a strong correlation between the quake's epicenters and injection wells, where brine and the chemicals associated with the flowback from hydraulic fracturing are pumped deep underground. They suggest the fluid acts as a lubricant, causing otherwise dormant faulting to slip.

Officially, the Railroad Commission of Texas won't acknowledge the connection. Commissioner David Porter told the crowd that his agency, which regulates injection wells, would study the matter to better understand the cause of the seismic swarms, and cautioned them against believing everything they read in the papers.

Parker County Judge Mark Riley suggested Porter expedite whatever study the commission needed to undertake to "ease (the) frustration" of an anxious public.

From the outset, Porter made clear that the forum was for residents of the area to share their experiences, not for answering their questions, of which they had many: Who's going to pay for the damage to my home? Is the buried pipeline nearby in danger of rupturing? Should I move? What could this mean for my water well?

The stories they told were strikingly similar -- cracks spreading through their homes, their foundations. Shaking accompanied by a thunderous boom. An unease at night, and a lingering suspicion that the next big one is imminent.

"You might think you were in Iraq or Afghanistan," said Greg Morrison, of Reno. "It feels like a semi truck hitting your house with a bomb going off."

Another resident said the most powerful earthquake so far, a 3.6, had opened up a crack in her ceiling some four feet long. Yet another claimed that every toilet in her home had developed fine cracks. Tracy Sutton, a realtor in Azle, feared the quakes may depress home prices in the area. "I've had two people tell me they want to go elsewhere because of what they've heard."

They approached the microphone, one after another, with many more waiting to speak when the public comment session came to an end.

State Representative Lon Burnam channeled the suspicion voiced by some of the speakers that the Railroad Commission could not be counted on to hold the industry responsible. "We, as elected officials, need to be more accountable to the citizens of Texas," he said, encouraging Porter to schedule another hearing soon, where questions might find answers.

"I've talked to the state geologist to get some studies formed to make sure we have the evidence we need," Porter said.

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Brantley Hargrove