Critics say Oklahoma’s state government earthquake response is inadequate

OKLAHOMA CITY – A cluster of critics are assailing what they deem inadequate or delayed response from state government to understand and counter the increased number of earthquakes in Oklahoma.

The Sierra Club of Oklahoma and Kansas hosted a meeting at the Stillwater Public Library on Saturday (August 8).

Professor Todd Halihan of Oklahoma State University was among the scheduled speakers, promising to examine “induced seismicity” and its connection to underground injection wells.

Officials with the Sierra Club promised three more meetings – in Norman, Guthrie, and Tulsa – to give a voice to Oklahomans.

“Yes, the Kansas and Oklahoma Chapters of Sierra Club are working on this issue, but for us it is all about making sure state and local governments realize the toll this issue is taking on everyday citizens,” stated Johnson Bridgwater, Director of Oklahoma Chapter of Sierra Club.

Angela Spotts, founder of Stop Fracking Payne County said in a release from the Sierra Club, “I do not believe our leaders truly understand the emotional affect this having on us. I am completely stressed out, my house is cracking apart, and it has only gotten worse with larger and more frequent earthquakes lately.”

Meanwhile, a pair of Democrats serving in the state House expressed deep unhappiness with steps Gov. Mary Fallin has taken to monitor and address earthquake activity.

State Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, is completely unsatisfied with the recent deliberations of Fallin’s Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity.

In a press release last Thursday (August 6) he said Oklahoma “has had no coordinated response” to the tremors. Williams zeroed in on comments Fallin made after the Council’s latest meeting. In response to a reporter’s question, Fallin advised homeowners to study earthquake insurance options.

In rebuttal, Rep. Williams said, “Most Oklahomans can’t afford it because of the high deductibles, and typically those policies cover only catastrophic damage.” He asserted that, “Most earthquake insurance ‘riders’ completely exempt earthquake damage attributed to ‘induced’ – manmade – seismicity from oil and gas exploration and disposal wells.”

While some have credited involvement of energy industry representatives on the Council, Williams is no fan, singling out the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association and the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, each of which has representatives on the Council. He believes, “It’s just more of the same: ‘wait and see and we’ll study it’.”

Williams pointed to a seisometer near Stillwater that recorded eight 3.5+ magnitude earthquakes in Oklahoma within 24 hours after last week’s meetings. “We’re coming to the party three years too late.”

State Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, is pressing the issue on another front.

On a recent edition of News9’s “The Hot Seat” with Scott Mitchell, Shelton said he will re-introduce legislation to “ensure that our children are educated about what to do in the event of an earthquake while they’re in school.”

Oklahoma school officials routinely conduct tornado drills, fire drills, hazardous waste drills to respond to potential chemical spills, and training for students on measures to take if an intruder enters a building. 

Shelton wants to add earthquakes to the drill mix.

Public schools conduct 10 mandatory drills every school year, including lock down, fire, intruder and tornado drills, and two discretionary exercises. Under existing law, those could include earthquake drills, hazardous-material drills or bus evacuation drills.

The Oklahoma Department of Homeland Security reported recently that more than 130 state schools conducted at least one earthquake preparedness drill last year. However, Oklahoma has 1,807 school sites, Shelton noted.

The solon has pushed on the matter for years. In 2013, he filed House Bill 2868, to require every district to have “a written plan and procedures in place for protecting students, faculty, staff, administrators and visitors from earthquakes.”

Under that proposal, which died without a legislative vote, training would be coordinated and provided or approved by the state Department of Emergency Management.

Shelton notes, “We have thousands of students attending elementary, junior and senior high schools in [the Central Oklahoma] area, as well as the thousands of students attending Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Langston University in Logan County.”

Between 1978 and 2008, Oklahoma averaged 1.6 earthquakes per year of magnitude 3 or greater. 

Numbers have ratcheted up markedly since then. The Geological Survey found 14 magnitude 4 or greater tremors in all of 2014, three in 2013 and only one in 2012.

The OGS data and other details of recent activity are available at the website, established by the Fallin administration.

According to House Democratic staff, Bob Jackman, an independent geologist from Tulsa, asserts Oklahoma may experience a record 923 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher by the end of 2015.

NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.