(NaturalNews) In recent weeks, residents of rural Oklahoma have been experiencing something on a regular basis that used to be quite rare: the rattling and booming roll of the earth.
In the first week of August, Reuters reported, residents of Guthrie, which has a population of nearly 10,200 people, felt five earthquakes shake the town, which is about a 30-minute drive from Oklahoma City.
One of the most recent quakes shook the area shortly after lunchtime, an event that was duly noted on the "QuakeWatch" application that a number of residents have downloaded to their smartphones. The local paper now runs a weekly column providing updates and details related to the recent quakes.
"It feels like the earth is opening up and you are falling," said Tami Boxley, an employee at a local U-Haul rental office. "It's scary."
Since January, there have been 292 recorded earthquakes that have registered at least a magnitude of 3.0 or larger, officials said -- more than any other state in the continental United States. That is almost triple the 109 felt last year, Reuters reported, adding that, through 2008, the state averaged less than two quakes per year.
'The houses are bouncing'
Why the change? Reuters reports:
The unprecedented earthquake activity has put Oklahoma in the center of an emerging debate over whether the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas production triggers earthquakes. It has prompted enactment of broad new rules that go into effect Sept. 12.
"The houses are bouncing. It is frightening," Matt Skinner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporations Commission, which regulates oil and gas work in Oklahoma, told the newswire service, who added that his home itself has suffered quake damage.
The state economy relies heavily on oil and gas production. Seventy of Oklahoma's 77 counties produce crude oil and natural gas, and there are 4,500 disposal wells around the state that handle the industry's wastewater. And there is at least some scientific evidence that suggests -- but doesn't prove -- that wastewater injection near fault lines may cause earthquakes.
Regulators and state officials have said they don't know if wastewater disposal wells, which can reach thousands of feet into the ground, are responsible for the dramatic increases in seismic activity, but as a precaution, they are hastily looking at every well and have even shuttered some of them.
"We are looking at these wells and going over them with a fine-tooth comb... looking for anything that might trigger seismicity," Skinner said. "We can't leave anything to chance because something is happening here that no one understands."
Rules that go into effect next month will require well operators to produce daily reports on the volume and pressure of wastewater injection; this is a change from monthly reports, which were previously required.
Reuters further reported:
Many wells must have seismic monitoring equipment, and testing of certain large disposal wells now must take place annually, instead of every five years. Regulators also can require testing of any well, large or small, at any given time.
Now come the lawsuits
Officials are sending inspectors to wells to check and ensure that the pressure and volumes of wastewater injections are being kept within regulatory limits. So far this year, regulators have shut down at least 10 wells, and as of this writing, one of them remains shuttered.
"If a well has a minor infraction or anomaly, it is no longer minor. They are shut in until they are fixed," said Skinner.
As state scrutiny increases, so, too, has legal action in the courts. On Aug. 4, one woman from Prague, Oklahoma, filed suit against New Dominion LLC and Spess Oil Co., blaming them for injuries that she suffered when a fireplace in her house fell apart after a series of earthquakes of a magnitude of 5.0 or higher struck the community in November 2011.
The Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association and the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association said they are working with regulators and researchers to gather and analyze data, and are not ready to say what they believe is causing the earthquake increase, Reuters said.