On shaky ground

Impacts of seismic testing for oil/gas exploration disputed

Meiko Crumbley points to her damaged well.
Photo by Jefferson Dodge

While much has been made of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, another possibly negative side effect of oil and gas operations has emerged.

It’s called seismic testing, and it’s beginning to cause a stir nationally. It’s also making its mark near Fort Lupton, only about 14 miles east of Boulder County, not far from a huge new Halliburton facility where industrial semi trucks bearing massive tanks and other equipment are common sights on sleepy farm roads.

Seismic testing is used to measure underground formations and identify oil and gas deposits. It often involves the use of a “thumper truck” or “vibroseis” equipment. A large metal plate is extended onto the ground from the undercarriage of the vehicle, shooting physical shock and sound waves through the earth, sending signals to sensors.

Unfortunately, sometimes these operations appear to have unintended consequences. In Wyoming, Houston-based company Geokinetics was fined last spring for seismic activity that damaged the surface of 10 ranches, causing ruts and other disturbances, according to media reports.

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That same company has recently been blamed for causing the collapse of a water well and cracked walls on property owned by Charlie and Mieko Crumbley, who live in Weld County, south of Fort Lupton.

“I was sitting here doing homework when the whole house started shaking,” Mieko Crumbley tells Boulder Weekly, describing the Dec. 14 incident when Geokinetics vibroseis trucks came down her road and she caught a member of its monitoring service, Urban Seismic, walking through her property despite three “No Trespassing” signs. The Crumbleys have video surveillance of the employee’s trespass and a truck passing by in the background.

Soon after, they noticed new cracks in their walls and ceiling, and then their well began collapsing, damage they attribute to the vibrations.

Some studies show that while the chances of damage to water wells from seismic testing are slim, it can happen. On the other hand, a 1994 study of vibroseis impacts on a test house found that hammering nails and slamming doors generated a greater response than the vibrations. Another 1994 study on the effects of vibroseis trucks in the Los Angeles area uncovered minor damage: aggravation of an existing break in an old wooden beam.

The Crumbleys have been told they will need to drill a new well within five years, to the tune of $20,000 that they don’t have. Otherwise, they say, their property value will plummet.

“If we don’t have water, we can’t live here and it will be worth nothing,” Mieko Crumbley says. “We’ve lived here 17 years and never had a problem with our well or cracking or anything.”

Charlie Crumbley adds, “I was looking back this morning at 17 years of mortgage payments, which is about $300,000, for something I’m going to have to walk away from, and that’s pretty sad. A house without water, you can’t live in.”

The companies, which were contracted by Anadarko Petroleum Corp., visited the Crumbleys’ property and determined they weren’t at fault, saying the vibrations measured by the employee, who they acknowledge was trespassing, did not rise to the level of being able to cause structural damage.

And Mieko Crumbley says she doesn’t hold out much hope that a recently opened investigation by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is simultaneously charged with promoting and regulating the oil and gas industry in the state, will yield satisfying results, since the investigator is “already saying that we live in an area that has expanding clay soils.”

COGCC spokesperson Todd Hartman said the commission employee investigating the situation, Steve Lindblom, is enlisting outside engineering expertise “to provide further insight into what may or may not have happened to their well.”

Hartman added that complaints about seismic testing are rare; the state has had only 16 such complaints over the last 13 years, “and most of those weren’t even related to claims of damage, so it’s an unusual thing.”

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While damage claims may be rare in Colorado so far, they are a growing reality in areas where the nation’s shale gas boom is creating the need for more seismic testing, such as Texas, Pennsylvania and New York.

In both southeast Texas and in neighborhoods around Fort Worth, where drilling activity is centered on the gas-rich Barnett shale, stories similar to the Crumbleys’ are becoming commonplace. Entire neighborhoods are claiming that their homes have been damaged by the vibrations from seismic trucks.

According to a report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, it was August 2011 when Delores Newton was sitting in her house in Fort Worth when seismic trucks started working not far from her home. Newton told the paper, “It scared me. When I stood up, I was shaking. My ceiling fans were shaking.”

Newton wasn’t alone. Her neighbors on her street also felt the vibrations, and when things stopped shaking, they claimed that they could see new damage to their homes. “You can go around my house and look,” Newton told the Star- Telegram. Wanda Theragood, Newton’s neighbor, likewise told the paper, “There are fresh cracks everywhere.”

Another similarity between these Fort Worth claims and the Crumbleys’ is that the seismic company in Fort Worth claims that its trucks did not cause the damage, despite the descriptions by homeowners that they felt their entire houses shaking as the trucks thumped past.

That is nearly identical to what is claimed to have happened in Vidor, Texas, according to the Southeast Texas Legal Journal.

According to a lawsuit filed by several Vidor residents who lived on the same street, “In late November 2005, defendants [the seismic company and its monitoring company] began seismic testing on Briarcliff with ‘thumper trucks,’ sending strong sound waves into the earth to detect mineral reserves. … As a result of the loud sound waves, pictures were shaken off the walls and their homes damaged. … Plaintiffs discovered their houses sustained serious losses and damages after the seismic testing.”

Just as with the Crumbleys and in Fort Worth, the seismic company performed its own investigation and concluded that the obvious damage to the homes was more likely caused by natural settlement or shifting soil than seismic testing.

In Pennsylvania and New York, it is damage to water wells that is of greatest concern. Claims that shallow water wells have been damaged by seismic trucks working up to a mile away in the Marcellus shale areas of Pennsylvania have been made. And in New York, several towns have at one time or another considered moratoriums on seismic testing in an effort to protect water wells and sewage pipes.

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The COGCC’s Hartman says he is not aware of any fines for damages resulting from seismic testing in Colorado, but acknowledges that there has been at least one fine issued to a company for accessing land without properly getting permission from the property owner.

When notified of the COGCC investigation, Anadarko spokesperson John Christiansen said, “That would be a good thing, in this case.”

He added that the company and its contractors are very careful about monitoring vibrations and notifying property owners in advance of the testing.

But Jan Moles, president of the monitoring company Urban Seismic, told BW that his employee “made a mistake” when he walked onto the Crumbleys’ land without first gaining permission or at least notifying them. “He was reprimanded and sent home for a while. … It was just an honest mistake. We were trying to protect their property.”

When asked what might have caused the damage to the Crumbleys’ property if it wasn’t the trucks, Moles says there are a variety of environmental conditions that can cause soils “to expand and contract, and it puts a whole lot more stress on these structures than the vibrations from these trucks.”

He adds that most of the energy emitted by the equipment travels straight down, and the vibrations along the surface represent “one-tenth of what it would take to make concrete crack. It’s physically impossible. … I’ve been in this business 15 to 20 years, and I’ve never seen damage caused by these vibrations.”

It appears difficult to prove that cracked walls and foundations were caused by seismic testing vibrations. While it may be possible to get a baseline test of the condition of a water well before seismic testing begins in an area, something that critics of seismic testing encourage landowners to do, it is more difficult to do the same for a home. The only precaution for homeowners would be to shell out the cash for a home and land inspection prior to the arrival of the trucks, to document the existing condition of the property.

Certified home inspector Jeff Lyons, owner of A-Pro Home Inspection Services of Boulder County, agrees that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of a crack in a wall or ceiling like those found in the Crumbley household.

“You really can’t tell,” he tells BW. “There are a number of things it could be, but you couldn’t definitively tell that’s what it is, not just by doing a visual examination.”

Lyons says that inspectors can make an educated guess about the cause based on other indicators, like foundation cracks, root intrusion and the location and angle of cracks around doors, windows and drywall. He says one-time cracks caused by vibrations like those from seismic trucks shouldn’t continue to spread over time, so homeowners could mark the ends of the cracks and photograph them. If they continue to spread, it is probably indicative of shifting soil or another ongoing problem rather than a single event.

“But you wouldn’t be able to definitively tell, you would only be able to make some assumptions,” Lyons says. “It’s not an exact science.”

Still, Anne Sheehan, a geophysics professor at the University of Colorado, says she is skeptical that seismic testing is capable of causing cracks in walls and a well to collapse.

“I would be surprised if the damage you mention is due to vibroseis trucks,” she wrote via email. “I have visited a number of vibroseis experiments over the years (including riding in the trucks and standing next to the trucks to feel the shaking). The vibrations are similar to a truck driving and sounds are similar to those from a garbage truck.

“I took my undergraduate geophysics class out to visit the Geokinetics seismic crew east of Greeley last month,” she continued. “In my opinion, they are doing a very careful job and are sensitive to any landowner and resident concerns.”

But the Crumbleys have considered pressing trespassing charges against Urban Seismic and its employee, or even filing a lawsuit, although Charlie Crumbley says he has been advised that a suit will cost six figures because the couple will be outgunned.

“Once you get involved with a company like Anadarko, they’ll price you out of the game,” he says. “What’s happening to us is a very common thing. They come in and do their investigation and then deny.”

And as another truck rumbles by, Mieko Crumbley says the nearby Halliburton facility used to be a feed lot.

“We wish we had that old feed lot back,” she says. “It used to be a nice, quiet place to live.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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