A state judge has given the green light for Oklahoma’s former premier seismologist to testify in a pair of lawsuits filed against oil and gas companies alleging wastewater injection wells caused earthquakes resulting in injuries to people and damaged property.
Attorneys for plaintiffs in the cases sought to depose former Oklahoma Geological Survey seismologist Austin Holland to testify about whether the November 2011 earthquakes centered near Prague were caused by injection wells operated by New Dominion LLC, as well as whether Holland was pressured by oil company executives not to link the earthquakes to wastewater injection wells.
The first lawsuit, filed in 2014 by Sandra Ladra of Prague, alleges Ladra was injured when a fireplace and chimney in her home collapsed during the 5.7 magnitude earthquake that struck on Nov. 5, 2011. That suit was dismissed by a Lincoln County judge, who agreed with defense attorneys for New Dominion that the Corporation Commission had jurisdiction over the case, but the dismissal was overturned by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2015.
A second lawsuit, filed in 2015 by Prague resident Jennifer Cooper, also seeks to recover damages to her home, as well as damages to other homes in Lincoln County and surrounding counties as a result of the November 2011 quakes.
On Tuesday, a discovery hearing was held before Cleveland County Judge Lori Walkley, who heard arguments from both sides about the plaintiffs’ efforts to depose Holland, as well as OSU professor and geophysicist Todd Halihan, who is also a member of Gov. Mary Fallin’s Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity. Walkley also heard arguments on whether the plaintiff’s attorneys should get access to Tulsa-based New Dominion records and communications with government officials and agencies regarding injection wells and seismic activity.
In the past, Holland had said there were attempts by individuals in the oil and gas industry to impact his work, and in 2013 he was called into a meeting with University of Oklahoma President David Boren and Continental Resources chairman and oil billionaire Harold Hamm. The Oklahoma Geological Survey is housed at the University of Oklahoma.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“It’s beneficial for all the cases we have all over the state because it sets the precedent that these kinds of things are discoverable,” Scott Poynter said. “When we take Austin Holland’s deposition, for example, we intend to use that in all the cases. It benefits all of our clients around the state.”[/perfectpullquote]
In April 2015, The Oklahoma Geological Survey issued a report linking the enormous uptick in earthquakes in Oklahoma to injection wells used by the oil and gas industry to dispose of wastewater used in the hydraulic fracturing process.
A few months later, Holland resigned as State Seismologist to take a job at the U.S. Geological Survey in New Mexico.
Scott Poynter, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, said shortly after the three 5.0 or greater magnitude earthquakes struck Prague in November 2011, Holland and a delegation of other Oklahoma officials addressed residents at a public forum, where Holland said the quakes were probably not related to injection wells.
“We believe he said that because he was instructed to do so,” Poynter said. “We believe also that he knew at the time and believed at the time that they were induced quakes from wastewater disposal. But that message was suppressed by his bosses, and we think, industry executives.”
On Tuesday, Walkley ruled that Holland could be deposed if the U.S. Department of Interior approved the deposition, that Halihan could not be at this point (though she left the door open for a future deposition if it was more narrowly defined), and that the plaintiffs could have access to New Dominion’s communications with government officials and agencies about disposal wells and seismic activity as well as reports or investigations it had conducted on induced seismicity, said Scott Poynter, attorney for the plaintiffs.
Poynter said yesterday’s ruling not only will help the two cases that came before the judge, but other, similar lawsuits that have been filed as a result of other earthquakes in Oklahoma as well.
“It’s beneficial for all the cases we have all over the state because it sets the precedent that these kinds of things are discoverable,” Poynter said. “When we take Austin Holland’s deposition, for example, we intend to use that in all the cases. It benefits all of our clients around the state.”
Ladra’s case is scheduled for jury trial on Nov. 27.