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Disposal wells to be shut down near Oklahoma quake site

Dozens of buildings sustained “substantial damage” after a magnitude-5.0 earthquake struck Cushing, Okla., home to one of the world’s key oil hubs, but officials said Monday that no damage has been reported at the oil terminal.
Dozens of buildings sustained “substantial damage” after a magnitude-5.0 earthquake struck Cushing, Okla., home to one of the world’s key oil hubs, but officials said Monday that no damage has been reported at the oil terminal. The Oklahoman

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission says it will shut down disposal wells and reduce the volume of water the oil industry can inject underground in response to a magnitude-5.0 earthquake that struck Sunday evening. The order will cover a 700-square-mile area, according to the commission, which will provide more details on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, officials in Cushing, Okla., estimate it will take weeks to assess all the damage from the Sunday earthquake that was felt in Wichita 120 miles away.

About 40 to 50 buildings were damaged, according to Cushing officials. The 100-year-old buildings in the downtown area suffered the most damage and were blocked off by police on Monday. About 45 residents of an affordable-housing complex for seniors had to be evacuated. One man cut his arm trying to leave his home.

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But bigger risks still loom: A 2015 federal study concluded that an earthquake not much larger than Sunday’s could pose a large risk. That’s because Cushing and the area surrounding it store the largest supply of above-ground oil in the nation, more than 65 million barrels. Its pipelines, which include the Keystone pipeline, transport millions of barrels of oil in and out of town each week.

Oil risk

Cushing’s oil companies shut down to assess damage on Sunday night, according to Stephen Spears, the city manager of Cushing. The pipelines near Cushing move more than 1.5 million gallons of oil per day, and Bloomberg has called the town “the pipeline capital of the world.”

The oil companies that are regulated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission have not reported any damage and have resumed operation, according to Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the commission.

A magnitude-5.0 earthquake struck near Cushing, Okla., between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, on Sunday night, Nov. 6, 2016. (Video by Oliver Morrison / The Wichita Eagle)

The decision to restrict wastewater injections in a 700-mile area near the earthquake’s epicenter is similar to other actions taken by the commission in the past, according to Skinner. It is not the largest action the commission has ever taken, but the commission is looking at other possible responses as well, Skinner said.

The federal agency responsible for oversight of pipelines is still investigating the incident, according to Susan Hand, a spokeswoman for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

In October, the Tulsa World reported that engineers in Cushing were running tests to determine whether the area needed better oil storage tanks to ensure that larger earthquakes didn’t damage the area’s storage facilities.

Damage from bigger quake

A federal agency devoted to reducing risks from earthquakes concluded in 2015 that Cushing is at risk.

The report states that “the possibility of a significantly larger and damaging earthquake exists” in the Cushing area. And this size earthquake “could seriously damage storage tanks and pipelines in the Cushing facility.”

The report by the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program analyzed aftershocks that showed that fault lines near Cushing have been reactivated and could trigger an earthquake of magnitude 5.6 or greater. This is the size of the 2011 earthquake in Prague, Okla., which, when the study was conducted, had been the largest earthquake recorded in modern times in this area. In September, a magnitude-5.8 earthquake struck Pawnee, Okla., about 25 miles north of Cushing.

The potential for earthquakes this powerful “has serious implications for infrastructure design standards,” the study stated. And it further concluded that the energy industry should “avoid injection into active faults and be prepared to” change where and how much wastewater is being disposed. The study was conducted by four federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey.

FEMA explains what you should do before an earthquake happens and when it occurs in an animated video called "When The Earth Shakes."

The price of oil futures rose on Monday, and some investors expressed worry.

“It’s definitely a long-term negative development if you are getting earthquakes of that magnitude at such an important site,” Bob Yawger, director of the futures division at Mizuho Securities USA Inc. in New York, told Bloomberg. “It doesn’t bode well for the future.”

There are more than 500 million barrels of oil stored above ground in the U.S., according to Patrick DeHaan, an oil industry analyst for GasBuddy.com. But because the 65 million barrels in Cushing are concentrated in one area, any major disruption would have a large impact on the price of gas at the pump and on the oil supply.

The impact would be even greater in the Midwest, DeHaan said, which doesn’t have any major oil ports. DeHaan thinks damage to pipelines poses at least as big a threat as any damage that might occur to storage containers.

Damage in Cushing

Officials from Cushing said that residents escaped close calls during Sunday night’s earthquake. The town reported one injury.

But the damage to its downtown required an evacuation and left the downtown area temporarily uninhabitable on Monday.

The majority of the ceiling tiles at the town’s public safety center fell, and there was a gas leak and multiple water leaks, according to town officials. The gas was turned off.

The town is employing a structural engineer to determine whether damage to downtown buildings pose a danger to residents. It was too early to say whether the buildings with the most damage would be salvageable.

“We want to assure the residents that we have everything under control,” Spears said.

Ceiling tiles fell on moviegoers at the downtown theater, and a man cut his arm while trying to leave his home while the power was out.

(Oliver Morrison/The Wichita Eagle)

As of Monday, city officials had surveyed only the exterior of the buildings, where chunks of walls as large as about 80 by 20 feet had fallen into the street, Spears said.

The building that houses the town’s newspaper, the Cushing Citizen, had some of the most severe damage, Spears said. The building had between $150,000 and $200,000 in damage, estimated Chris Reid, the newpaper publisher’s son. Insurance companies would not insure the building for earthquakes, Reid said.

In addition to large chunks of the exterior falling off, large cracks appeared in the staircase that leads to the second-story apartment where the publisher lives. Employees were back inside the building working on Monday.

The city has been getting help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is hoping funds will be available from the state of Oklahoma, according to Spears.

The city lost power for a couple of hours Sunday due to earthquake damage at a power plant substation, but there were no downed power lines, according to Elton Willard, the power plant superintendent. The power plant itself suffered damage to a water valve, an air line and had ceiling tiles fall. “All in all, our plant is in good shape,” Willard said.

The post office had glass damage, but Spears said he thought it would be fixed by Tuesday so that it would be open for voting on Election Day.

Schools had minor damage and were closed on Monday.

Contributing: Associated Press

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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