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Groundwork Laid For Class-Action Lawsuit Against Oil Companies After Record Earthquake in Pawnee

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma
Mona Denney surveys earthquake damage inside her home near Pawnee, Okla.

Attorneys are asking a judge in Pawnee County to approve a class-action lawsuit against oil and gas companies after the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that shook the area in September.

The action was brought on behalf of Pawnee resident James Adams. If a judge approves, other residents could join the lawsuit against oil and gas companies operating wastewater disposal wells in the area.

Attorneys will argue wastewater pumped into wells in and around the town in northeastern Oklahoma helped trigger the earthquake and weeks of aftershocks. The lawsuit would seek money from energy companies to compensate residents for damage to homes and property and emotional harm.

“Dangerous tremors have become a constant threat to the residents of Pawnee, but the energy companies behind them don’t seem to care,” Robin Greenwald, an attorney with Weitz & Luxenberg, wrote in an an emailed statement. Attorneys representing plaintiffs in the Pawnee case have filed other earthquake-related lawsuits in Oklahoma, including one on behalf of a state chapter of the Sierra Club.

Two Oklahoma-based companies were named in the petition: Eagle Road Oil of Tulsa and Cummings Oil Company of Oklahoma City. Neither has responded to the court filing. If the lawsuit continues, other companies could be named as defendants.

The Pawnee quake is the largest ever recorded in Oklahoma, which is experiencing a boom of seismic activity scientists have linked to the practice of wastewater injection. Emergency officials say the shaking caused at least one minor injury and damaged dozens of buildings.

For years, state officials were reluctant to acknowledge the earthquakes and the economically vital oil industry were connected. In 2015, state regulators started working with companies to shut down and limit wastewater injection at wells in shaky areas.

Researchers say such actions have helped reduce earthquake activity, but the shaking is ongoing and has, by some measures, grown. Six magnitude-5.0 or stronger quakes have been recorded in Oklahoma over the last 60 years; half of which occurred in 2016 alone, data show.

One such quake — a 5.0-magnitude Nov. 7 temblor recorded near the city of Cushing — caused one minor injury, damaged dozens of buildings, and led to the temporary shutdown of one of the country’s largest crude oil storage terminals.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state.
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