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Oklahoma almost never used to have earthquakes. But in the last six years they’ve increased so much that last year the state surged past California as the most seismically active state in the continental U.S. Prior to 2009, the state averaged two quakes of greater than 3.0 magnitude annually. By 2014 that number had soared to 585, up from 109 in 2013.

The culprit? Scientists are convinced it’s the wastewater injection wells that have accompanied the explosion of fracking in that state during the same time period.

Oil and gas company New Dominion  is Prague, Oklahoma's biggest employer — and has been accused of causing damaging earthquakes there. Photo credit: New Dominion
Oil and gas company New Dominion is Prague, Oklahoma’s biggest employer—and has been accused of causing damaging earthquakes from its wastewater injection wells. Photo credit: New Dominion

Now the Oklahoma Supreme Court has cleared the way for citizens to sue the oil and gas companies responsible for the wells. In a 7-0 decision, with two justices not voting, the court said that Sandra Ladra, a resident of Prague, Oklahoma, which was hit by a 5.6 magnitude earthquake on Nov. 5, 2011, could seek injuries for injuries she suffered in that tremor.

“On November 5, 2011, Appellant was at home in Prague, Oklahoma watching television in her living room with her family when a 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck nearby,” reads Ladra’s complaint. “Suddenly, Appellant’s home began to shake, causing rock facing on the two-story fireplace and chimney to fall into the living room area. Some of the falling rocks struck Appellant and caused significant injury to her knees and legs, and she was rushed immediately to an emergency room for treatment. She claims personal injury damages in excess of $75,000.”

The industry said that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries and tends to be very friendly toward them, should deal with these cases. The state supreme court disagreed.

“The commission, although possessing many of the powers of a court of record, is without the authority to entertain a suit for damages,” the court found. “Private tort actions, therefore, are exclusively within the jurisdiction of district courts.”

That decision also clears the way for a second Prague citizen to sue for property damages. That plaintiff, Jennifer L. Cooper, is seeking class-action status, and if granted, tens of millions of dollars in damages could be awarded. Both plaintiffs are suing Tulsa-based New Dominion, which calls itself “the leader in harvesting hydrocarbons,” and the smaller Spess Oil Co. of Cleveland, Oklahoma.

“It is refreshing to see that the Oklahoma State Supreme Court ruling will not allow the oil and gas industry to skirt responsibility for the damage their earthquake-inducing practices have caused Oklahomans,” said Food & Water Watch organizer Matt Ohloff.

“We know oil & gas wastewater disposal wells are causing the increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma, and those suffering from the property, physical and psychological damage from these earthquakes should receive full rewards directly from the responsible parties—oil & gas. And while it is a major victory that these lawsuits will be allowed to move forward, what we ultimately need is for the Oklahoma state legislature and Oklahoma Governor to enact a moratorium on oil & wastewater disposal wells to stop the earthquakes from happening in the first place,” Ohloff continued.

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