New Mexico’s oil and gas regulators and scientists are on alert after a dramatic increase in earthquake activity in southern New Mexico—an increase likely triggered by oil and gas industry injection wells in the Permian Basin.
Since 2018, the number of small quakes of magnitude 1 or greater in the basin has risen from about 40 to nearly 500 in 2020, and over that period quakes of magnitude of 2 or greater rose from none to 158, according to data from the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.
There were 146 quakes through June so far this year. Those numbers are just in New Mexico—they are even higher over the border in the Texas portion of the basin.
The overwhelming majority of the quakes are small and barely perceptible to people right in the area where they occur. But Mairi Litherland, manager of the Seismological Observatory at New Mexico Tech, is paying close attention because “we have seen that when you start to see more of these smaller events, it can lead to larger events.”
Texas had several larger events in the past year that were felt in New Mexico. And in July, a 4.0 temblor in New Mexico shook the southeast corner of the state, “which is something that we pay attention to, for sure,” says Litherland. “It indicates that there is a risk in that area that we need to understand.”
Earthquakes can damage property if large enough. And there is some very important property in the area. The nation’s main nuclear weapons waste storage site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), lies a half mile underground in a salt formation in the middle of the New Mexican portion of the basin, a little north of most of the quake activity.
“There hasn’t been much seismicity in close proximity to the WIPP facility,” Litherland says, “but it is a concern, and it’s something that we need to keep an eye on.”
WIPP is the 10,000-year repository for highly toxic radioactive waste created by the nuclear weapons industry—things like tools, clothing and soil contaminated with plutonium. It is operated by private contractors for the US Department of Energy (DOE).
In 2014, a radioactive leak attributed to bad kitty litter contaminated several workers and shut the facility for nearly three years. And in 2016, ceiling collapses led to the closure of part of the underground facility. In response to emailed questions, a DOE spokesperson wrote that this was a “naturally occurring rock fall” in an unused portion of the facility.
“DOE requires that facilities are designed to withstand applicable hazards from natural phenomena, including earthquakes,” the spokesperson continued. “To date, there have not been any increases in seismic activity at the WIPP site that warrants action or concerns.”
That’s not the only nuclear facility in…
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