Boom Town


Raney Aronson: I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of the PBS investigative series FRONTLINE, and you’re listening to the FRONTLINE Dispatch. This time, Boom Town.

Unidentified townsperson: We went two weeks of constant earthquakes.  Just rumbling, rumbling, rumbling, rumbling.

Unidentified townsperson: We counted 19 earthquakes in about 34 minutes.

Unidentified townsperson: But over and over and over. It makes you want to move out of your town.

Raney Aronson: To say that Cushing, Oklahoma is an oil town is putting it mildly. Even though it’s small (only about eight thousand people live there) its giant tank farms store millions of barrels of oil. So much oil that the Department of Homeland Security says if anything were to happen there, it would “have a debilitating effect on national security.” But since 2009, something has been happening there. There’s been a dramatic rise in earthquakes—earthquakes linked to the oil industry. Sandy Tolan has this story – he’s a reporter who has covered energy and natural resources for years.  He went to Cushing to find out how these quakes impact a town that’s literally built on oil. Here’s Sandy.

Sandy Tolan: The first place I went in Cushing was the town’s biggest attraction, and its economic lifeblood…

Sandy Tolan: Well I’m looking down, it’s about, I don’t know how far down, I see my reflection down there in a little pool of oil.

Sandy Tolan: I climbed on top of a giant oil storage tank and called down into it. Hello! 

Sandy Tolan: Up here the view is just tank after shiny white tank. I came to Cushing because of the quakes...actually, because of one big quake...but that comes later.

Rodeo Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen he can hear you right about now. Make some noise.

Sandy Tolan: When I got to Cushing, there was a rodeo in town.

Rodeo Announcer: Father we just come before you lord in the name of Jesus Christ and Father we just lift these guys up lord.

Sandy Tolan: Wandering around, I met a guy in a white cowboy hat and jeans – rodeo hand by night, oilfield supervisor by day.

Pat O’ Kelly: My name is Pat O’Kelly, I was born here in Cushing, I’ve lived here all my life, I’m 54, I can’t imagine living anywhere else besides here, this is home. It’s almost like a Norman Rockwell deal, you know? It’s just…you just know everybody.

Sandy Tolan: He said, like him…

Pat O’Kelly: Most of the people in Cushing are somehow making money off of oil.

Rodeo Announcer: Lionel Harris Oil Company sponsoring the bareback riding. We had a couple of guys not make it tonight.

Sandy Tolan: Oil was first discovered in Cushing in 1912. Before then, Cushing wasn’t much more than a pitstop on the Eastern Oklahoma Railroad, but oil brought thousands of newcomers into the town. Cushing was big sky, bronc riding, the oil patch...and every once in a while, there’d be a little earthquake. Maybe one or two a year. Then, everything changed. Jeremy Boak, the state’s top geologist, tells the story in numbers.

Jeremy Boak: Well historically, Oklahoma’s experienced about 1 or 2 earthquakes of magnitude greater than 3.0, 1 or 2 per year. Then starting in 2009 that went up to 10, 15, 20 per year, and 60, and a hundred. And then in 2014 it was 579. 2015 it was 903.

Sandy Tolan: That might sound pretty shocking, but for the most part, the quakes were fairly small. And even though there was evidence it could be related to the oil industry, most people just chalked it up to living in an oil town.

Sue Trotter: My name is Sue Trotter.

Sandy Tolan: Sue is the mother of this year’s Rodeo Queen.

Sue Trotter: A lot of people don’t want to say that the oil companies are causing the earthquakes. That’s the way they make their money. I mean, this is the lifestyle around here. Nobody wants to point a finger. But they want to know why. Why does it keep happening? And people are getting where they’re used to it. And that’s not right. I don’t think we should ever get used to an earthquake. It’s not right.

Sandy Tolan: Before, getting used to them meant dealing with tremors, things falling off the walls…the unsettling rumbling of the ground. But then came November 6th 2016.

Unidentified townsperson: The exact true story is I was in my bathroom in my underwear.

Unidentified townsperson: And all of a sudden it sounded like a bomb went off.  It just everything shook. The barn shook.

Unidentified townsperson: The cracking and the roar and the thunder and the shaking.

Unidentified townsperson:...and things started falling off the wall, pictures did, and off shelves…

Unidentified townsperson: The noise came with a freakish roar.  Maybe it was the wave of the earth coming this way.  And that earthquake shook, shook our building like a rag doll. We could see the walls moving from side to side.

Unidentified townsperson: And I said, I believe this one here is the real deal.

Unidentified townsperson: It was just, Wow. Wow. That was an earthquake. I mean, that shook our world.

Local News9 TV Reporter: Cushing police say there is significant damage in downtown Cushing after a magnitude 5.0 earthquake just west of town at 7:44 this evening…

Sandy Tolan: The downtown Lions’ Club building collapsed. Roofs caved in.  The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter.

Local News9 TV reporter: Right now I’m on Broadway street where we can see most of the damage that occurred...the assistant city manager…

Sandy Tolan: And the Oklahoma Insurance Department estimated that more than 170 buildings were damaged.

Local News9 reporter: And some of the biggest damage can be seen at the Cimarron Tower behind me, this is an assisted living facility, all of the people had to be evacuated, I talked ….

Sandy Tolan: The ground around the oil tanks shook, but the tanks held. So much police tape went up around the downtown, it looked like a crime scene. No one was killed or badly hurt. But this woman, who didn’t want to give her name, lost almost everything …

Woman:  Well my options, really at that point, because I could not get any financing to repair the home, was to walk away from it.

Sandy Tolan: And for you, ah, what sort of damages in monetary terms did you suffer?

Woman: So I've lost my home and my credit that I had worked my whole life to establish.

Sandy Tolan: Suddenly, it was harder to see the earthquakes as just the price of doing business. David Reid is the publisher of the local newspaper. He says he’d been fine riding out the smaller quakes because..

David Reid: The oil industry is so important to our state and to this community that if these small tremors is the price we have to pay to keep those guys profitable and growing, we’ll pay that. And we’ll gladly pay that, because there’s no serious damage done, and that’s okay. We’re very, very supportive of our friends in the energy industry, and we want them to make obscene amounts of money.

Sandy Tolan: But the big one crossed a line.

David Reid: If you run your car into the corner of my building, and you do $100,000 damage to my building, and I go out there and say, “Hey, dude, what did you run into my building for?” And you refuse to pay for it, you and I are going to have a little problem for a while.

Sandy Tolan: David Reid and his wife Myra live and work out of a two-story brick building that was seriously damaged in the quake.

David Reid: And this, this crack is one you can stick your finger through and there’s even cracks significant enough that you can see the light outside. And that goes all the way up the buildings.

David Reid: I think we got an enormous punch in the gut. And it doubled us over. And the community is not over that yet. And our downtown area may not get over it. It was very, very serious.

Sandy Tolan: Some people wondered – what if the next one was even bigger? A bigger one had the potential to harm the oil infrastructure in Cushing, possibly even create an environmental disaster. Now, you might be thinking this is all to do with fracking… and fracking has been linked to a small number of man-made earthquakes in Oklahoma. But there’s a different culprit here in Cushing and across the state. Tim Baker explained it to me.

Tim Baker: I’m the director of the oil and gas conservation division, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

Sandy Tolan: The state Corporation Commission is set up to be a regulator of Oklahoma industry, and so they’re charged with looking out for the public while also facilitating the needs of the companies. And when the quakes started, they investigated whether a type of oil production that was more and more popular across Oklahoma might be related to the dramatic increase in quakes.

Tim Baker: Well, horizontal drilling has changed the ballgame in Oklahoma.

Sandy Tolan: The time-tested way of drilling for oil, is to go straight down into the ground. But horizontal drilling means the rigs go down and out – often as much as a mile or two in all four directions.

Tim Baker: Picture a stack of pancakes. But now if you can go horizontally in one of those pancakes, one of those layers, you can get that same layer much longer than you can if you cut through it vertically.

Sandy Tolan: Reaching that much further gets you much more oil. But there is a problem. Something else comes with all that crude.

Tim Baker: Large quantities of water. And, when you produce that oil, you’re going to get this prehistoric ocean water with it.

Sandy Tolan: In central Oklahoma, millions of years ago ocean water became trapped deep in the ground with the oil. And now, when you drill, that water rushes much more of it than in conventional vertical drilling. On average, about twenty barrels for every barrel of oil.  And that water is so salty, you can’t just dump it on the ground or it’ll kill all the vegetation. So across Oklahoma the oil companies teamed up with wastewater disposal operators, basically -- companies that pump that super-salty water back into the ground...into a big, spongy layer of rock called the Arbuckle formation.

Tim Baker: It looked like a marriage made in heaven.

Sandy Tolan: Pumping it into the Arbuckle was a pretty cheap and easy solution. But

Tim Baker: What no one thought about or no one envisioned, was the Arbuckle, being the deepest formation in Oklahoma, sits on top of what we call the basement rock. The earth’s crust.

Sandy Tolan: The basement rock…that’s where the fault lines are. Weighing them down is one way earthquakes are created.  This science isn’t new – actually, quakes were linked to injection of fluids as far back as the 1960s. In recent years, as scientists began to look again, the connection seemed even stronger. But despite all that evidence, it took a while for many oil companies to admit their activities might actually have something to do with the quakes.

Kim Hatfield: My name is Kim Hatfield. I’m president of Crawley Petroleum, a privately held company here in Oklahoma that operates over 500 wells across Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle.

Sandy Tolan: Hatfield had seen the evidence, but says his fellow executives in the oil & gas industry had doubts about what should be done about it. There are about 1000 disposal wells in the Arbuckle, and he says do you prove just which well is causing which quake?

Kim Hatfield: It's like you went into a football field, and there's a row of switches, you want to turn on the lights. And so, you throw a switch. Nothing happens. You throw another switch. Nothing happens. You start fiddling with the switches and all of a sudden, a light comes on and then it goes off. The question is, "was is that the switch I flipped through, was that one of the other switches? Is it a combination of switches?" That's kind of what we're working with.

Sandy Tolan: Hatfield says that’s partly why it took a while for them to come around to the need for restrictions.

Kim Hatfield: People like to point and say "Well, gee whiz, you had the first seismic event you should have known something was wrong you should have done something immediately," but you have to realize the time interval between the increase in injection and the increase in seismicity was over a couple of years. You know we say a couple of years like it's a long time – it may seem like a long time to us, but geologically that's not even a blink.

Sandy Tolan: But as all of these discussions were happening, the number of earthquakes was skyrocketing, causing some to worry that the state was acting too slowly. In early 2016, before the big quake in Cushing, but almost seven years after the spike in earthquakes began, state regulators limited the amount of waste-water disposal allowed in the Arbuckle. Here’s Tim Baker again:

Tim Baker: From almost, it was just shy of 3 mil barrels a day…

Sandy Tolan: New restrictions kept it to about two million barrels a day.

Tim Baker: And now we’re down to about 1.4 million barrels a day. But we did see a decline in earthquake activity.

Sandy Tolan: After 903 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher in 2015, the number dropped to 623 last year and it’s down more so far in 2017. And after the big quake in Cushing state regulators went even further. Among other things, they shut down all the Arbuckle disposal wells within 6 miles of the epicenter. It’s gonna take some time for the restrictions to work, but nobody knows just how long. And in the meantime, there are still quakes. So I wanted to know – how did they arrive at the two-million-barrel limit? I called Matt Skinner, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. And Skinner told me that while they were glad the number of quakes was going down, quote “nobody knows what the safe level” of waste-water disposal is. In other words, 2 million barrels a day maybe more like an educated guess.

Sandy Tolan: But David Reid – he’s the newspaperman – said that even though there were fewer quakes and more restrictions the wastewater disposal operators should still pay a price for what had happened. He’d heard that in neighboring towns, people were suing for quake-related damages. Reid said he felt like he needed to sue as well.

David Reid: This community might take this punch in the gut, and not do anything. I mean there were a lot of people hurt financially, and emotionally. And I couldn’t stand that.

Sandy Tolan: But it wasn’t so easy for his wife, Myra.

Myra Reid: I wasn’t totally with David at first.  Cause we’re not the type of people to jump in and sue.  But if they caused this damage, then they need to pay for it.

Sandy Tolan: So the Reid’s and two other Cushing residents filed a class action lawsuit against the five wastewater disposal companies whose operations were closest to the epicenter of the Cushing quake.

Sandy Tolan: Not everyone in town was thrilled about the lawsuit. Some people didn’t want it to look like they were going after oil companies. But, David Reid says:

David Reid: It happened to a lot of my friends, very close friends, acquaintances, readers whom I feel a responsibility to, and they’re refusing to do anything about it.  So then you settle it in a court of law.

Sandy Tolan: The lawsuit asks for money to cover the property damages caused by the quake.  But it also calls for punitive damage for the quote “wanton disregard” of the wastewater operators who, the suit claims, knew the danger of what they were doing. The defendants dispute this, saying they aren’t legally responsible for any damages from the quake. Tensions in town have been high, but David Reid says to him it’s pretty simple.  

David Reid: That’s what we’re doing.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s not anything emotional about it.

Sandy Tolan: But few things shake up a community more than suing your neighbors. I reached out to the five companies named in the Cushing suit, but none of them returned my calls. Except Rick Ahrberg. Rick’s the CEO of a small waste-water disposal company. Actually, it’s his side business, most of the time he runs a livestock feed mill. But he’s the only one being sued who lives in Cushing.

Rick Ahrberg:  I’ve known these people my whole life, and they are bringing this suit and they’re following the advice of attorney instead of a 40-year relationship. And so, it does cut a little deep.

Sandy Tolan: Rick leans back in his office chair, in jeans and a knit polo shirt. He doesn’t want to talk about the specifics of the lawsuit, because, well, his company is getting sued.  He acknowledges that there seems to be a connection between wastewater disposal and the quakes. But he also says:

Rick Ahrberg: Yes, the oil and gas industry was out in this area when a lot of the quakes were going on.  But it could have been a coincidence.

Sandy Tolan: Rick says he feels singled out. And as the only defendant in Cushing, he tells me that in Rotary Club meetings, prayer groups, encounters on the street: it’s awkward.

Rick Ahrberg: Yeah, it's been ... It's, it's a very difficult situation. It's heartbreaking. Because a lot of times ...this small community. You may be lifelong friends and yet you, you have this division.

Sandy Tolan: But it’s more than that: it’s anger. When you talk about the oil industry you’re talking about the livelihoods of so many people in Cushing, so suing for damages can feel like someone’s trying to take money out of the pockets of you and everyone around you.

Sandy Tolan: That feeling is no further away than David Reid’s own son.

Kory Reid: Kory Reid. We’re at Bad Brad’s Barbecue in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Sandy Tolan: Kory was furious about the lawsuit.

Kory Reid: Every single cent of my company relies on crude oil in one way or another.  If crude oil goes down, you feel it in your bottom line that next day.

Sandy Tolan: Kory says he was blindsided by his parents’ decision to sue.

Kory Reid:  The first time I heard was on Thanksgiving.  I guess it was last year. And I was mad, but I was mad because they didn’t even tell me they were going to do it. They just did it without my knowledge. As family you should at least give your son that’s in crude oil field a heads up so that he can prepare his strategy for what may come.

Sandy Tolan: Do you feel like your parents are biting the hand that feeds?

Kory Reid: You’re biting the hand that feeds you, because you’re in the town of Cushing. Pipeline crossroads of the world. And you’re a newspaper salesman. So, you sell ads. And the ads are to help these businesses in this town that’s run off of crude oil. Basically run – the one town in the whole country that is absolutely run off of crude oil. And you’re going to go against them now. I mean, that doesn’t sound very smart.

Sandy Tolan: Eventually, the Reid’s made up, now they see each other most days. But David Reid gets that for most people the suit is about money. He says he understands it all too well.

David Reid: We brought this lawsuit in November. There were many thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising that we had sold before and couldn’t sell, because, directly because, of our involvement in this lawsuit. I personally was the one that called on several of these clients. And they told me, I can’t run an ad in there.  If I do, one of the defendants will withhold contracts from me.

Sandy Tolan: Despite the family frictions and the lost profits, the Reid’s have kept at the lawsuit, even though they know it could take years.

Sandy Tolan: Pat O’Kelly – the oilfield supervisor I met at the rodeo who said Cushing is like a Norman Rockwell town...he said he understands why people were rattled....

Pat O’Kelly: It sounded like a bomb going off.

Sandy Tolan: But, the O’Kelly family is part of the oil industry, and Pat’s wife Stacy says, they’d never sue an industry that’s always been there for them.

Stacy O’Kelly:   Boy I wish we could file a lawsuit too and win big bucks and pay off our house and do things like that.  But when you really look at the long-term effects of it, I mean, ten years down the road, after this is all said and done, and you don’t have anybody drilling around you, and you don’t have all this work around you, then what? OK, so where’s that lawsuit money?

Sandy Tolan: Pat says anyway, he’s not that worried about the quakes.

Pat O’Kelly: Since I became a Christian, I spend my whole, the rest of my life waiting to see God. So if an earthquake takes me out, or whatever takes me out, that’s what I’ve been working for anyway, so earthquake doesn’t scare me.

Sandy Tolan: But they scare plenty of other folks, especially looking forward. Even with the current restrictions, some worry about one key detail. It’s this – wastewater disposal companies have complied with the two million barrel a day restriction while the price of oil has been LOW, so there’s a lot less money in drilling anyway. But there’s concern that once the price of oil goes up, so will drilling and the oil industry will pressure the regulators into letting them inject just a little more water into the Arbuckle. Oklahoma, after all, is a state where an oil well sits in front of the state capitol building, and the name Halliburton is emblazoned inside in the capitol’s “ring of honor.”

Johnson Bridgwater: Oklahoma, in my opinion, is definitely run by the energy industry.

Sandy Tolan:  Johnson Bridgwater, he’s the director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club, said there’s a long history of the state bowing to the interests of oil.

Johnson Bridgwater: Rather than work to minimize the impact on citizens, they've worked to minimize the impact on businesses.

Sandy Tolan: I asked regulator Tim Baker about this:

Sandy Tolan: I mean, the commission's role historically, in a large part is to facilitate, the economic engine of Oklahoma, which is largely oil and gas, right? Does that put the commission at times in a compromising position when you have such economic pressure that we know about to continue to develop, the oil fields?

Tim Baker: Um, I don't believe so in my own opinion. I'm just going to speak as the director of oil and gas. We try to follow the science, and where the science leads us, that's how we, we have acted upon our directives. And that's what industry has wanted us to do.

Sandy Tolan: Why not just shut these disposal wells going into the Arbuckle down and then you don’t have to monitor so closely because there’s no injection?

Tim Baker:  Well at that point, we would not be allowing an operator to conduct his business. They have their right for their day in court…

Sandy Tolan:  But you’re describing a process in which you react after a quake, right?  And what if the quake is really bad, and then you act afterward, but everybody will be pointing fingers saying you should have acted sooner?

Tim Baker: Well, no one knows what the future’s going to hold. Most of the data that’s been collected in Oklahoma no one has seen before on this scale. We are watching it closely. And if more action is necessary we are ready and willing to do that.

Sandy Tolan: In his cramped office in Oklahoma City, Kim Hatfield, the oil man and president of Crowley Oil said it quite plainly:

Kim Hatfield: If you shut down injection into the Arbuckle, the oil industry in Oklahoma would come to a halt and not within a matter of weeks or months but within literally a matter of minutes, because of being unable to deal with saltwater.

Sandy Tolan: Among other things, Hatfield reminds me, oil and gas is responsible for a quarter of all tax receipts in the state and those could all go away.

Kim Hatfield: A New York Times reporter asked me you know what would happen if we just outlawed injection. I said, well that would make The Grapes of Wrath look like a happy movie.

Sandy Tolan: So what’s next? The Cushing lawsuit, along with a few others in other parts of Oklahoma, is still unresolved…in May, the oil companies moved for the lawsuit to be dismissed, arguing there wasn’t sufficient evidence. But that motion was denied, and so the case goes on, though no one expects it to be resolved anytime soon.  Rick Ahrberg - the defendant you heard from earlier - says tensions in the town are still high, but he’s hopeful the community will move on:

Rick Ahrberg: There's been a lot of jobs and a lot of money brought to Cushing through the oil industry and will continue to be…it’s livelihoods for families. So you know I'm sure in my heart this will pass, and once it does pass and we have resolution on it, the healing will take place quickly and we'll all move forward together and try to build our community back.

Sandy Tolan: But with so much devastation and division, not everybody in Cushing is feeling that same sense of community spirit. Like the woman you heard from earlier who lost her house, credit, everything…she says it’s been really tough. And she hasn’t had a whole lot of support.

Sandy Tolan: One of the things that I've sensed from people, you know, this community comes together to help each other and rallies around and you know, when people are in need, you know, their neighbors come and help. And I mean, did you find that that was the case in, in your situation?

Woman: No, not really.

Sandy Tolan: In the meantime, though, there are still earthquakes.

Sandy Tolan: …and I had this idea that uh, I was gonna be the Packers announcer…

Sandy Tolan: One morning in July, while doing my reporting, I was invited on a local morning radio show.  I had interviewed one of the hosts a few days earlier, and afterwards she’d asked if I’d be willing to come on and talk about my career as a journalist. We were chatting when…

Sandy Tolan:  But anyway, then, I went on to…Oh, now that…

Joyce Abrams: We just had an earthquake.

Molly Payne: That, sir, is an earthquake.

Joyce Abrams: That’s an earthquake.

Sandy Tolan:  OK.

Molly Payne: Now we haven’t had very many of those when we’d been on the air.

Sandy Tolan: I was on the show eight months after the Nov 6 quake. It was my first one in Cushing.

Sandy Tolan: So we just got shook. Now, I understand from talking to people that there is a little parlor game that kinda would go on and people would Facebook each other and stuff and say, "Well, what do you think that was? A 2.7?"

Molly Payne: Mm-hmm.

Molly Payne: I would say that could have been a four.

Sandy Tolan: You think that could have?

Joyce Abrams: I don’t think so. 

Sandy Tolan: The quake registered as a 4.2. Turns out “guess the magnitude” was a game people were still were playing in Cushing. And they played it again a few weeks later, and then again with a cluster of small quakes in September.    

Sandy Tolan: I asked Daniel McNamara – he’s a geologist from the US Geological Survey  – what he thought the future looked like for Cushing.

Daniel McNamara: People in Oklahoma should be prepared for strong shaking.

Sandy Tolan: Oklahomans, he says:

Daniel McNamara: They need to think like Californians…

Sandy Tolan: McNamara says even if all the saltwater disposal stopped today, there would still be earthquakes…

Daniel McNamara: for many years.

Sandy Tolan: Seismologists say that if the wastewater disposal stays at its current levels, the quakes should continue to decrease. Some think it’ll take 5 or 10 years, others say it’ll be much longer. But Oklahoma is still at risk for a major earthquake. In other words, no matter what anyone does, no matter what laws are passed or restrictions implemented,

Daniel McNamara: There’s the potential for a magnitude 6 to 6.5 no problem.

Sandy Tolan: A 6.0 earthquake would be ten times more intense than the 5.0 quake that devastated downtown Cushing last November. It may never come.  But it also may be too late to stop it.Some people say this is a reason to start getting get off oil for good. Valerie Branyan is one of the lead plaintiffs in the Cushing lawsuit, but she’s looking past the quakes and the lawyers.

Valerie Branyan: I mean, we can’t just give away our town to oil. I mean, I think some people would have at first thought that was an option! That we just give away the town.

Sandy Tolan: Branyan is a Cushing native. Her dad worked in the oil industry. But she thinks Cushing has to begin reimagining itself, as hard as that might be.

Valerie Branyan: We’re gonna be needing another industry around here before too long. There’s no way around it. If they were to locate a manufacturing plant in Cushing, that would have an enormous impact on our whole state. Currently it’s all about oil billionaires.

Sandy Tolan: She’s even got a site picked out.

Valerie Branyan: This is the perfect spot. You can see so many of the tanks. When you look out there and you think about all that oil, and you think, who’s going to be buying it in 2040.  Our cars, our vehicles…are they going to be using oil then?

Sandy Tolan: But in Cushing, that day feels a long way off. Before I left Cushing, David Reid (the newspaperman who’s bringing the lawsuit) asked me if I’d like to get a view of the town from above.

David Reid: We're taxiing to active one eight Cushing we're on taxiway Alpha.

Sandy Tolan: David flies a 1968 Cessna.

David Reid: Okay, we're ready to go. Off we go, full power.

Sandy Tolan: At a thousand feet, we look down.  Just north, downtown Cushing stretches out.  Beyond it the winding Cimarron River… oil derricks and saltwater disposal wells.  And the dominant feature of the terrain, miles of oil storage tanks.

David Reid: It looks almost like checkers on a checker board. We have some tanks here that’ll hold 625,000 barrels of oil. You could play football inside of them. Probably about 100 million barrels of oil storage capacity. Real close to that.  

Sandy Tolan: In a day or so I’ll get on another plane, and – powered by oil – fly back to my life in California. But David Reid will still be here running his paper and fighting his lawsuit. He tells me that sure, the lawsuit caused rifts in town. But what if that’s the least of their problems. What if the “big one” wasn’t really “the big one.”

David Reid: If we have a 7.0, this building is done. And downtown Cushing is done. It’s no longer a punch in the gut. It’s a bullet to the head.

Sandy Tolan: For the FRONTLINE Dispatch, I’m Sandy Tolan.

Raney Aronson: Sandy, thanks for your reporting - we wanted to catch up with you so since you've been there which was just in July, tell me what's the latest in that town?

Sandy Tolan: Well the town hasn't stopped shaking since I left, Raney in mid-July. There have been seven earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or more.

Raney Aronson: So I mean would you characterize people as being worried about another big one? What's the feeling in the town about what could happen?

Sandy Tolan: It depends on who you talk to. I mean some people feel that the measures that the regulators in Oklahoma have taken are going to be enough to settle things down so they can go about their business and resume their lives in a sense and start rebuilding the homes that were damaged. But other people point to research that says there could be big quakes after a lot of these saltwater disposal wells were shut down. They just don't know if they're going to be safe. It's not just the locals who are concerned about the future. It's the U.S. government. Homeland Security is concerned about the tank farms in Cushing because so much of the American economy literally flows through the town. So there’s a concern that what Homeland Security calls critical infrastructure could be vulnerable…with a big quake there could be a catastrophic failure, and Homeland Security meets every month with the Safety Alliance of Cushing and in October they're running a preparedness drill. They want to be ready.

Raney Aronson: Sandy thanks again for your great reporting out of Cushing, Oklahoma.

Sandy Tolan: Thank you Raney.

Raney Aronson: This story was reported by Sandy Tolan, with research and reporting help from Sarah Terry-Cobo of the Journal Record. Additional help from Joe Wertz of State Impact Oklahoma. For FRONTLINE, it was produced by Jamie York and Sophie McKibben. Sophie is our podcast Series Producer, Jamie York is our Senior Producer, and our Creative Director and Senior Editor is Jay Allison. Jay also does our audio mixing.  For PBS’s FRONTLINE, Andrew Metz is our Managing Editor, and Amy Gaines is our Associate Producer. Thanks to Series Story Editor Lauren Ezell Kinlaw, Arun Rath, and our Special Counsel Dale Cohen. Thanks also to Viki Merrick and Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Music in this episode comes from Stellwagen Symphonette. The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced in WGBH's Studios in Boston and powered by PRX.I'm Raney Aronson, Executive Producer of the PBS investigative series FRONTLINE, and I hope you keep listening to the FRONTLINE Dispatch. If you want more stories like this one, subscribe at our website or whereveryou get your podcasts.

Massacre of El Salvador
Massacre in El Salvador
FRONTLINE, Retro Report and ProPublica examine the ongoing fight for justice for the horrific 1981 attack on the village of El Mozote and surrounding areas.
November 9, 2021