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Tribe sues energy companies over earthquakes

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PAWNEE, Okla. - Citing more than $250,000 in damages and fear of future injury, the Pawnee Nation is suing Oklahoma energy companies after the largest Oklahoma earthquake in recorded history.

The tribe filed its suit in Pawnee Nation Court, hoping it will expedite the legal process.

Cummings Oil Company and Eagle Road Oil LLC are named in the suit, along with 25 other "John Doe" companies that have injected fracking wastewater into the ground.

"Time is not on our side," said Pawnee Nation Executive Director Andrew Knife Chief. "All the indications are the earthquakes are not going away. This is the new reality in Oklahoma."

A 5.8 magnitude quake in September caused cracks in a number of Pawnee Nation buildings, causing one to be declared structurally unsound.

The damage is still evident even half a year later, as people fear what will happen the next time the ground begins to shake.

"It’s become from a novelty to now a dead-serious situation because the earthquakes are extremely intense," Knife Chief said. "We have to do something because we have no place to go. This is it. So this is where we’re going to make our stand."

Lawyers for the Pawnee Nation maintain that wastewater lubricated the ground, creating an environment conducive to large temblors. They are accusing the companies of:

  • Negligence: The companies "were well aware of the connection between injection wells and seismic activity, and acted in disregard of these facts."
  • Nuisance: Including damages to personal property; annoyance, discomfort and inconvenience; interference with their use and enjoyment of the property; diminution of property value
  • Trespassing: "Activities that resulted in concussions or vibrations entering [the tribe's] property

"We’re not here as law firms to try to shut down the oil and gas industry," said Curt Marshall, an attorney for the New York law firm that's representing the tribe. "That’s not our aim. Our aim is to make them environmentally good citizens. There has to be an equilibrium where the oil and gas industry can function and be profitable but not cause earthquakes on a daily basis."

Attorneys wanted to try the case in tribal court because they say it will move forward more quickly. Plus, a jury trial will feature people who are truly peers of the nearly 3,500-member Pawnee Nation, who understand the seriousness of the shaking.

"The fear factor is there, people are anxious, some people can’t sleep at night, children can’t sleep at night," said Marshall. "It’s disconcerting and this is no way for people to have to live."

The companies are also facing a class action lawsuit from people in Pawnee, Noble and Creek counties.

Representatives for the companies could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Pawnee Nation has also filed a suit in federal court, against the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Nation argues they should have more carefully weighed the risks before handing out drilling permits to a number of energy companies working on Indian land.

Knife Chief said he hopes the suit will bring some reassurance to the tribe, dozens of whom have reported and photographed damage on their homes.

"Our home is now here in Oklahoma and has been since the 1870s and with the destruction of our buildings, the damage of our buildings, it’s too high of a price for the nation to bear," he said. "If our buildings are destroyed, our lands become unoccupiable (sic) or uninhabitable through pollution or whatever, then there’s no place left for us to go."