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What the Frack: The Latest Earthquake Swarms in Los Angeles

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Alone in the house last night at around 9pm, with 3 cats and deep into working on the computer, that queasy odd sudden dizzy feeling that often hits before an earthquake rattled my nerves seconds before the sound of rattling cabinets and sloshing water from the attic fire sprinkler system had me heading for the nearest door jam.

Largest in a series of latest Southern California earthquake swarms, last night’s 5.1 magnitude tremblor was centered between the cities of La Habra and Brea in Orange County, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. The quake was also felt strongly in downtown LA and as far to the west as Culver City and Venice. Since then more than 100 aftershocks — including a range of small quakes to larger quakes of 3.5 to 4.5 — have been reported across Southern California. NBC Los Angeles also stated that residents across Southern California reported feeling the quake as far north as Ventura County and Barstow to the northeast and Dana Point to San Diego and Palm Springs in the south.

The low rolling rumble was preceded about an hour earlier by a magnitude-3.6 quake and as of the writing of this article, has been followed by at least 115 aftershocks in about the same area, according to the USGS website, the strongest reported hitting the region (and us here) at 2:32 p.m. today (Saturday), according to USGS’s real time quake data.

All around the tremblor’s epicenter and for several miles beyond, items shook off tables, chandeliers rattled, stores saw damage from items falling from the shelves and there was damage to cars and property, including one incident from a rockslide in Brea that flipped a car on its roof. While no major damage or injuries were reported from Friday’s quake, or the aftershocks, the temblor displaced at least 50 people in Fullerton, due to minor damage and Lieutenant Mike Chlebowski of the Fullerton Police reported that 5 houses and 20 apartments were damaged by the earthquake, in addition to broken water mains in that city that forced the closure of several flooded streets. More than 2,000 customers were still without power today as a result of the quake, according to Southern California Edison. The quake also temporarily shut down Metrolink trains to allow for inspection of tracks and cars and in Anaheim, Disneyland briefly turned off park rides as a precaution and asked guests to remain seated.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was quoted as saying in a news release that no damage had been found by police or firefighters within that city, but that "Tonight's earthquake is the second in two weeks, and reminds us to be prepared.”

“While not large, the event "seems unusual, of course, because a lot of people felt it," said Doug Given, a USGS geophysicist. Aftershocks are still being recorded by the United States Geological Survey, nearly 15 hours after the initial quake. And I can personally attest to the fact that we’re all shaken up enough to wonder (and I am especially sensitive to this after living through the 1989 San Francisco quake in the heart of the Marina District)…Is the next one around the corner going to be “Big One”?

While Californians are used to the fact that we live in earthquake country and multiple aftershocks are a very common occurrence in earthquake zones, the increasing rate and severity of these earthquake “swarms” leads us to asking the question --

What the Frack?

Is fracking in these areas linked to the increase of quakes and are we endangering both our cities and populations by continuing this practice? The fact that strong quakes are now hitting areas where fracking is going on much more frequently and with instances of unusual quakes hitting on the East Coast in similar areas, it should be reason enough to look much deeper into the issue and beyond the push for oil at all cost.

We have seen fracking in the news now for months and the debate goes on, but the scientific evidence has led to a number of significant concerns in California and other earthquake prone areas. Just a little over ten days ago, after the 4.4 magnitude earthquake, dubbed the “Shamrock Shake”, shook many of us out of bed on March 17th, the Los Angeles City Council called on city staff to investigate whether natural gas and oil drilling methods, such as fracking, helped trigger that earthquake.

According to CBS news and other sources, Councilmen Paul Koretz and Mike Bonin introduced the motion, which was then seconded by Councilman Bernard Parks. The motion would direct city staff members from the city to work with the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geotherman Resources (DOGGR), the U.S. Geological Survey and the South Coast Air Quality Management District in order to produce a report a report looking into whether a link may exist between fracking and the temblor.

Los Angeles City Council members in February has ordered a halt to fracking, gravel packing, acidizing and other “unconventional” drilling and well-stimulation methods used by some oil companies may be using in and around Los Angeles, but the practice is still going on in many other regions adjacent to LA, including Culver City, Carson and in many areas around yesterday and today’s quake activity center.

According to the City Council’s motion -- " It is crucial to the health and safety of the City’s residents to understand the seismic impacts of oil and gas extraction activities in the City. All high-pressure fracking and injection creates ‘seismic events’ …and active oil extraction activities are reportedly taking place on the Veteran’s Administration grounds in West Los Angeles, nearby the epicenter of the March 17, 2014, 4.4 earthquake.

In February, the city council moved to ban fracking, agreeing to draw up rules to prohibit “well stimulation” until further regulations are imposed by the state and federal governments. In early March, the council followed up on the agreement and authorized a change of local land-use laws in order to ban fracking within the city limits. The proposed moratorium also extends to gravel packing, acidizing, and any other form of well stimulation.

With these actions, Los Angeles would became the first oil-producing city in California to ban fracking. Other cities such as Carson and Culver City have expressed support for a statewide ban, but as yet have not taken action.

So what do the geologists say?

On March 6, 2014, the USGS issued a press release indicating that the 5.7 magnitude earthquake that struck Prague, Oklahoma in 2011 was unintentionally human-induced. The USGS claimed that the magnitude 5.0 earthquake triggered by waste-water injection the previous day triggered a cascade of earthquakes, including a larger one, which has important implications for reducing the seismic risk from waste-water injection.

Officials from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have said there has been a dramatic rise over recent years of “noticeable earthquakes” that exceed 3.0-magnitudes in both central and eastern United States. They have linked pumping fracking wastewater underground to a sixfold jump in quakes in the central U.S. from 2000 to present. Since 2009, earthquake reports in Oklahoma alone are almost 40 times higher than in the previous three decades, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

While many experts agree that the dangers from fracking are real and several reports are being compiled from the USGS and the EPA to a number of government and university experts, we still don’t know the extent to which we at risk locally and how much fracking could finally bring on that BIG ONE.

I for one will continue to dig into the research and keep reporting on, while most certainly filling up all the water canisters, updating my earthquake preparedness kit and making sure I know to drop to the floor between my couch and the coffee table or the side of the bed instead of running for the door jam on the next one.

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