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Oklahoma Tribes Keep Wary Eye on Escalating Earthquake Activity

Oklahoma tribes prepare for earthquakes as the state becomes the new California, most likely because of fracking wastewater injection wells.

Oklahoma is the new California, at least when it comes to earthquakes. Over the past year, tribes have been preparing emergency plans, compiling lists of special-needs citizens and closely monitoring seismic activity.

During 2014, Oklahoma experienced a record-setting number of earthquakes rated at magnitude 3.0 or higher, prompting government officials to convene a research council to study the uptick and organize a response. Most of the nearly 40 Native American tribes that call the state home told Indian Country Today Media Network they have felt little impact so far, but are on guard as the situation continues to develop.

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"Earthquake response is part of our overall emergency management plan, and we have procedures in place to protect our employees, guests, businesses and environment in the event a large earthquake occurs in our area," said Daryl Holaday, director of safety management for the Choctaw Nation.

Oklahoma experienced 585 magnitude 3.0 or greater earthquakes in 2014 compared to 109 such earthquakes in 2013, the previous record. From 1978 to 2009 the average number of earthquakes registering 3.0 magnitude or greater was just two per year. There has been speculation that the spike was tied to hydraulic fracturing, a process in which water, sand and chemicals are injected between layers of shale to free up oil and natural gas deposits for extraction. In April the Oklahoma Geological Survey announced that the majority of earthquakes in the central and north-central part of the state have likely been triggered by wastewater injected into disposal wells deep underground.

"The primary source for suspected triggered seismicity is not from hydraulic fracturing, but from the injection and disposal of water associated with oil and gas production," said Oklahoma state seismologist Austin Holland in a statement.

The state's largest earthquake to date occurred on November 6, 2011. The 5.6-magnitude temblor, centered in Prague, Oklahoma, damaged a handful of homes and caused one turret to collapse at the historic Benedictine Hall on the campus of St. Gregory's University in Shawnee. Two other turrets were also damaged, forcing the school to close the building, and there were reports that people in the neighboring states of Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri also felt the quake.

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Despite that damage, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, which is based in Shawnee, has not been significantly affected by the increased seismic activity, according to tribal chairman John Barrett. The tribe, however, continues to pay close attention to the changes and adjusts preparedness and response activities based on those changes, he said.

"We monitor the environment within our jurisdiction on an ongoing basis, paying close attention to things like underground wells, drilling and commercial businesses, which could have an impact on or be affected by seismic activity," Barrett said.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation's emergency management team has also participated in trainings and have conducted exercises to educate employees and members of the public about how to best protect themselves in the event of an earthquake, Barrett said.

Elsewhere in Oklahoma, the Choctaw Nation, which encompasses 10.5 counties in the southeastern portion of the state, has not experienced any damage from earthquakes, according to Holaday. All facilities are built to current building codes, though they don't incorporate any measures specifically targeted to earthquakes, he told ICTMN.

However, the increased seismic activity over the past few years has prompted the tribe to incorporate mitigation measures into its multi-hazard planning into the future, Holaday said. These efforts include mapping earthquake fault activities and completing seismic vulnerability analysis of certain facilities. The Choctaw Nation is also developing a list of people with special needs who may require special assistance in times of a quake as well as presenting information to the community on earthquake awareness.

The state is taking similar precautions. Last September, Governor Mary Fallin announced that Secretary of Energy and Environment Michael J. Teague would convene a Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity to examine and share data, studies and proposed actions pertaining to the uptick in seismic activity. The council is not a rule-making or fact-finding body, but was created to help increase efficiency among industry players, academics, non-government organizations and regulators. The state has also set up a website, Earthquakes in Oklahoma, to disseminate earthquake information. 

Likewise the Oklahoma Sierra Club plans to work with Indigenous Peoples on these issues, said executive director Johnson Bridgwater, starting with the Indigenous Environmental Network. Bridgwater said it's important that the Sierra Club reach out to tribes since they play such an important role in the state.

"It is also quite important to acknowledge tribal sovereignty, and the fact that many tribes have strong connections to environmental issues and to nature," Bridgwater said.