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Man-made earthquakes are rattling Texas

One of 22 new permanent earthquake monitoring stations being installed across Texas. This one is on private property near Hondo. (Photo: Bettie Cross)

Nature usually gets the blame for causing earthquakes. But now human activity is literally shaking things up in Texas and several surrounding states.

The U.S. Geological Survey is now mapping the states at highest risk of man-made earthquakes. In 2016, parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas were the top three. Parts of the states were said to face a risk that is similar to the unstable terrain of California. In response to the rise in human-induced earthquakes, the 84th Texas Legislature authorized $4.47 million to create TexNet, a statewide monitoring network to figure out what's going wrong and how to keep Texans safe.

"The, the Battle of the Bay," said Dr. Darrell Park as he pointed to a ceramic mug sitting on his patio table.

That single mug and countless memories are all the Cedar Park dentist has left from the 1989 World Series. The Oakland A's fan was hoping to get tickets, instead a deadly earthquake forced game three to be called off.

"All of a sudden it hit. It was a lot of destruction," said Dr. Park. "Windows were breaking. Buildings were swaying. Cars were actually hopping off the ground. Overpasses came down. It was total chaos."

After that California quake in the San Francisco Bay area, Dr. Park made a sudden shift of his own. He moved to Texas to go to dental school and wasn't expecting to feel the earth grumble again. But instead of Texas being a steady home base, new earthquake monitoring equipment shows Texas and Oklahoma are rattling more than ever.

"As you look to the north in Oklahoma, our neighbor to the north, we're happy to have them own the record of the most earthquakes last year (2016). More than California by quite a few actually," said Dr. Scott Tinker, State Geologist of Texas.

Dr. Tinker is based at the Bureau of Economic Geology in the Jackson School of Geosciences. It is the oldest and second-largest organized research unit at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Tinker says both Texas and Oklahoma are now trying to get out in front of the growing problem.

"You start to feel hundreds and hundreds of events and the public says wait a minute we didn't have these before, what's going on?" said Dr. Tinker.

Rancher John Chunn is helping to answer that question. He just partnered with the TexNet Seismological Network to allow the installation of a monitoring station on his property near Hondo.

"We have 120 acres," said Chunn. "I want to be part of the science."

The station is one of 22 new permanent earthquake monitoring stations being spread out across the state. These earthquake monitors are called "TexNet's seismic backbone." In addition, 36 portable stations will be placed in areas of recent earthquake activity. The permanent and portable stations will help determine if recent quakes are man-made and if oil and gas wastewater is getting pumped underground in the wrong places and causing faults to slip.

"These issues are too important for people to just be guessing." said Chunn. "Research it. Get the data that they need to actually drill down, no pun intended, and do the science on it. You certainly want to know what's going on and you want to know it for a fact."

The permanent monitoring stations are being installed in out-of-the-way spots that have minimal competing ground noise. The need for a calm environment means they would never put a station right next to a busy road. The problem isn't the jarring sounds we hear, it's the vibrations or ground noise we feel. The seismometers are so sensitive footsteps and stomping will register 105 miles away in Austin.

"That is real time in Hondo," said Alexandros Savvaidis, TexNet Network Manager.

Each sensor streams data in real time back to the Bureau of Economic Geology in north Austin. CBS Austin didn't tell the TexNet project manager when reporter Bettie Cross arrived in Hondo, but the earthquake monitoring equipment certainly did. Every red spike on the graph is a foot stomp from either Cross or Chunn as they stood near the monitoring station. Which means even the smallest quakes are being measured and cataloged. The data give the researchers the ability to understand when and where seismic activity is occurring.

"That is an event south of San Antonio," said Savvaidis as he showed CBS Austin springtime events from around the state. "This is from a small event we had in west Texas."

Once TexNet has analyzed enough information it will be easier to determine where to safely store oil and gas wastewater deep underground.

"Know where to drill, what depths, how much liquid they could put in and what times. So manage that system just a little bit better so that we're not having a large volume in one spot next to a fault that will move," said Dr. Tinker.

The Hondo rancher who volunteered his land spent 30 years practicing law before he retired. He knows how to dig for evidence and wants to help Texas not just prepare for the worst, but try to prevent it.

"Drilling down to the hard and sure evidence of what's going on with the geology in this state," said Chunn.

"Hopefully we prevent earthquakes from happening and prevent any felt earthquakes at the surface or surface damage or risk to people," said Dr. Scott Tinker.

The next report on TexNet and recent earthquake activity in the state is due to be presented to legislators in December.

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