The evidence is mounting that the dramatic surge in earthquakes here in Oklahoma can be related to oil and gas drilling activities, but will state leaders do anything about it?
On Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) issued a media release citing its study that a 5.7 magnitude earthquake that struck near Prague in November, 2011 “was the largest human-caused earthquake associated with wastewater injection.”
The coauthor of the study, Elizabeth Cochran, a USGS seismologist, pointed to an earlier earthquake of 5.0 magnitude the day before that may have led to the larger earthquake. The initial earthquake may have been caused by wastewater injection. Cochran said, “"The observation that a human-induced earthquake can trigger a cascade of earthquakes, including a larger one, has important implications for reducing the seismic risk from wastewater injection.”
In oil and gas drilling processes, including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” massive amounts of wastewater are injected by high pressure into underground rock formations. These sites are called wastewater injection wells. Some scientists believe this process can destabilize underground surfaces and trigger earthquakes along the state’s fault lines.
Last year, Scientists from the University of Oklahoma and Columbia University also argued that the 5.7 magnitude earthquake could be related to wastewater injection wells. That earthquake, the largest ever recorded in Oklahoma, damaged several homes.
In recent years, there have been literally hundreds of earthquakes, mostly small, in Oklahoma. Some residents here have been worried that the smaller earthquakes could be a prelude to a major temblor that might cause massive damage and take lives.
There are new regulations for more thorough inspections of injections wells under consideration by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, but they apparently have to be approved by the legislature and governor.
The questions are whether the new inspections go far enough to ensure the safety of Oklahoma residents and whether the Republican-dominated government here will take any action that might be opposed by the powerful oil and gas political lobby.
As I’ve argued before, this is an important safety and economic issue in Oklahoma, one that has the potential to severely impact lives and future development. Who wants to live or build a home in an area that experiences hundreds of earthquakes each year?
The oil and gas industry, which is experiencing a mini-boom in the state and other areas of the country, is certainly important to Oklahoma, but at some point earthquake risk factors and other environmental factors related to fracking outweigh its overall economic impact.
Meanwhile, it’s vitally important that the USGS and scientists continue to study the surge in earthquakes here over the last two or three years. It could literally be a matter of life and death.
I’m giving a presentation at an academic literary conference in San Antonio this weekend so I’m taking a much-needed break from writing about the Oklahoma political scene today.
My presentation, “Fuku or Zafa? Teaching the Raw Language of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” tries to deal with the issue of teaching literary texts that contain racially-charged language. What are the best practices? How have they changed through the years? How does Oscar Wao, in particular, open up opportunities for understanding the use of such language in and on the borders of the Latino community?
Diaz’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008.
In an interview, Diaz, a Dominican American, has argued, “Latinos are a racial complexity that the U.S. seems ill-suited and unwilling to confront.”
The Latina/o Literary Landscape conference, a part of the American Literature Association, is meeting for three days in downtown San Antonio, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in literature I love to teach and write about while exchanging ideas and catching up with other professors, literary critics and writers.
There’s always a lot of brief media attention when the latest report comes up documenting the unbelievably high rate of mental illness here in Oklahoma, but there’s never much discussion over why that is the case.
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) issued a report recently that showed Oklahoma ranked second in the nation in both serious mental illness and all mental illness, ranking just behind West Virginia and Utah, respectively.
That means that 5.24 percent of Oklahomans 18 or older suffer from such serious mental illnesses as schizophrenia and severe depression while a whopping 21.88 of Oklahomans 18 or older suffer from what some might consider less debilitating forms of mental illness, such as low-grade or temporary depression. The data is from the years 2011 and 2012.
The impact of mental illness on the quality of life here, whether one suffers from symptoms or not, cannot be underplayed. It can raise the crime rate, lower work productivity and wreak havoc in families.
So why do Oklahomans suffer from so much mental illness?
One thing is sure. The state spends little public money in prevention, programs and maintaining mental health facilities, at least compared to the national average. This has a snowball effect because untreated mental illness can escalate into deeper problems. A low-grade depression, for example, could turn into clinical depression that is more difficult to treat.
But I would like to posit some other reasons for the high rate of mental illness here, many of which can be ascribed to the state’s particular “DNA”:
Lack of awareness. I would argue that many Oklahomans don’t even accept some forms of mental illness as valid and embrace a “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” mentality. Obviously, most people can recognize when someone is completely delusional in a real medical sense, but what about people who are simply extremely sad or anxious? Should they just get over it? Those sad or anxious people can face, then, a bias and a feeling that they’re abnormal, which can accelerate their conditions. We simply must get over the stigma of mental illness.
Bias against education. I have long held that there remains among many Oklahomans a bias and distrust of education. This can be seen from the inadequate funding for schools in the state to legislative bills that attack the scientific principle. What this does is inhibit basic awareness of psychological problems on individual and cultural levels.
Poverty. Oklahoma has a long history of being an impoverished state with poverty rates lower than the national average. What this means is that some people here tend to self-medicate or tough it out without treatment, if they can even find treatment, which leads to the next reason.
Poor medical access. The lack of medical access in Oklahoma has been a long-term dilemma, especially when it comes to mental health. The state needs more psychiatric and substance abuse facilities. It needs more outpatient facilities. This would be an investment that could really enhance the quality of life here.
The intangibles. I have argued in the past that Oklahomans, and I realize I’m generalizing, tend to tough things out in their lives. But there are so many aspects of life here that can contribute to mental illness, such as the severe weather, living in urban and rural blight, religious oppression and the lack of walking spaces within Oklahoma City’s massive urban sprawl. Physical exercise can help improve one’s basic outlook on life. Mental illness is an individual condition, of course, but one’s cultural and geographical milieu is always a factor in terms of mood and philosophy.
All this is not to say that Oklahoma is necessarily a bad place to live. For some people, obviously, it’s a wonderful place. But studies like this one point to real foundational problems in the state. It will take a holistic approach to solve it, but improving awareness and investing in mental health facilities and programs is a basic step in the right direction.