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Earthquakes, Earthquakes! And Drilling?

We had some action here in the mid-Atlantic yesterday that would make the folks in California yawn, but is pretty unusual around these parts – a magnitude 5.8 earthquake centered in Virginia, that was felt far and wide. There have even been a couple of small aftershocks. Paul and Teri report that the shaking was obvious in Shepherdstown, and my wife Amy said it seemed to last for a long time:

I was terrified – I thought a tree was coming down and would hit the house, or a truck was running into the house.  I ran to the open door to try to figure things out. Then I thought it was a military aircraft.  But it went on for a long time time (or so it seemed) and I figured it was an earthquake.

And just a day earlier, there was a similarly moderate quake (5.3) that struck along the Colorado-New Mexico state line near Trinidad.  There has been a swarm of small, shallow earthquakes in this area in recent years; because this swarm sits right in the middle of a very active coalbed methane drilling play (known as the Raton Basin, including drilling on the nearby Vermejo Park Ranch property owned by Ted Turner), there is some speculation that these earthquakes are actually being triggered by either the withdrawal of natural gas from the rocks, or the injection of water produced from the CBM wells back into the ground for disposal.

Epicenter (red star) of magnitude 5.3 earthquake that struck the Raton Basin natural-gas field near Trinidad, Colorado on August 22, 2011. Quake was 4 km deep. White spots are recently drilled natural gas (coalbed methane) wells in this 2006 image. CBM wells produce large volumes of water, which is disposed of here by injecting it deep into the ground.

It’s not as wacky as it sounds.  Disposal of fracking fluids by deep injection was implicated in an unusual earthquake swarm in Arkansas earlier this year; and similar quakes in 2005 happened here in the Raton Basin. This USGS report on a 2001 earthquake swarm also raises the possibility of seismic activity induced by the injection of fluids for disposal (note: fluid disposal by deep injection is NOT the same thing as fracking; but it is a consequence of natural-gas production in some places).

Check Out Our Natural Gas & Oil Drilling Collection

Now that we’ve got our image gallery all organized and pretty, we don’t want to keep it to ourselves. We want to share our images with you and ask what you think. So without further ado, here is our biggest collection, Natural Gas and Oil Drilling. The images in this collection show the impacts of exploration, drilling, production, storage and transport of natural gas and oil. This gallery contains images of some beautiful Western landscapes too, like Valle Vidal, Raton Basin in New Mexico, shown here:

Valle Vidal

Or how about pictures from the the San Juan Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, where coalbed methane development has forever changed the landscape:

San Juan Basin coalbed methane (CBM) development

Take a look at our Upper Green River Valley, Wyoming set, then read more it in our blog posts.

Also in this collection are the Roan Plateau, Colorado set, with stunning visuals like this:

Roan Plateau, Colorado

But don’t stop there. There are 21 sets in this collection including the Pronghorn Roadkill Accident in the Jonah Gas Field of Wyoming; the Otero Mesa, in the Permian Basin of New Mexico; the Oil Sands/Oil Shale set; a simulation of proposed drilling in Grand Mesa, Colorado; and the Wyoming Range, Bridger-Teton National Forest.

There are images from the Montara Oil Spill off the coast of Australia in August of 2009, a blowout that provided us an unhappy preview of what can go wrong with offshore drilling:

Montara Oil Spill - August 25, 2009

Dirty Snow on the North Slope of Alaska:

North Slope - Winter 2006, Detail 3

And the tragic BP/Deepwater Horizon blowout in our own Gulf of Mexico almost a year ago:

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - FSU Sampling Cruise - June 22, 2010

Go check out these and many other images now at our SkyTruth Gallery. And we’ll be back with our next collection soon.

Cotter Uranium Superfund Site, Colorado – Staying Shuttered

We just learned that the Cotter Corporation has decided not to re-open it’s uranium mill near Canon City. While it was operating this plant contaminated soil and groundwater so severely that in 1984 it was designated a Superfund toxic-waste site. Cleanup to remediate high levels of uranium and molybdenum has lagged, and SkyTruth images show that parts of the site actually overlap with areas that FEMA has designated high-risk flood zones — some leading right into adjacent residential neighborghoods.

Keeping the mill shuttered may be a relief for some local residents, but it comes with a catch: Cotter has notified the state that it will no longer conduct routine monitoring for buildup of dangerous, heavier-than-air radon gas, a breakdown product of the uranium. And government officials are wondering, if Cotter runs out of cash, who will foot the bill for the complex and expensive cleanup to protect public health.

Natural Gas Drilling, Hydrofracturing, and Ground Water – Drink Up?

A couple of YouTube videos have been making the rounds and causing some alarm among the ever-increasing number of homeowners who have active natural gas drilling in their area, and rely on groundwater for their drinking water supply. This video shows common, normal operations at a modern natural-gas drilling site in western Colorado, operated by the Canadian company EnCana, a major player in the Rockies. One video shows drilling fluids being stored onsite in a plastic-lined open pit (a “fluid reserve pit”) while the well is hydrofractured, or “fracced.” The other video shows this same pit being closed: as a crew removes residual fluids and pulls out the liner, a bulldozer buries the pit.


We’ve created a small gallery showing the drill site depicted in these videos, and adjacent residences. Although the operations depicted are probably allowed by Colorado law, nearby homeowners who have water wells for drinking and bathing are concerned about these practices as drilling permeates the area. Multiply this scene tens of thousands of times, and you get the idea what’s been happening in recent years with drilling in many parts of the country.

UPDATE 9/16/09: In response to a comment, we thought folks might appreciate these links to other resources about fracking:

  • A summary report on chemicals found in fraccing fluids, their toxicity, and health effects
  • Tables that list chemicals used in drilling and fraccing
  • This press release from The Wilderness Society supporting pending legislation that would require companies to publicly disclose the chemicals used in fraccing
  • Announcement that EPA found fraccing chemicals contaminating residential water wells in Pavillion, Wyoming
  • A wealth of additional information on hydrofracturing from Earthworks

Cotter Uranium Mill Superfund Site, Colorado

We’re finding some interesting things with the FEMA flood data. Yesterday it was coal-combustion waste storage in high-risk flood zones; today it’s uranium mill process wastes:

The Cotter Corporation, a subsidiary of General Atomics, began operating a uranium mill on the outskirts of Canon City, Colorado, in 1958. Liquid wastes containing radionuclides and heavy metals were discharged from 1958 to 1978 into eleven unlined tailings ponds. The ponds were replaced in 1982 with the construction of two lined impoundments. Prior to 1982, a number of Lincoln Park wells showed elevated levels of contamination. The site was placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites on September 21, 1984.

In 2001, Cotter Corp. applied for a license amendment to reopen the mill. (Click here for more information).

We overlaid flood data from FEMA showing areas at high risk of flooding that cross the Cotter facility and lead directly into residential neighborhoods just one mile from the site. Check out our small gallery of images.

Yikes. I wonder what we’ll find tomorrow.

Data source: FEMA Stay-Dry flood data (a Google Earth file)

UPDATE 4/27/09: Watch a 10-minute documentary film on the Cotter mill site and other issues surrounding uranium mining and milling (produced by Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste).