Homeowners, tribe file lawsuits over earthquake damage

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PAWNEE, Okla. - The damage to his home is one thing. The damage to James Adams' psyche is another.

"I used to sleep with the bedroom door closed, but now I leave it open so that I can get out," Adams said, fearing another strong earthquake. "You worry about the next one: Is it going to be as big or bigger than the one that did this?"

The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked Pawnee in September left cracks and crevices in Adams seven-year-old house. He can't estimate the amount he'll have to pay, but he knows insurance won't cover it. A lawsuit is his only hope at affording a fix.

"I don’t see any other way," he said. "Something needs to be done. We need to get it stopped. And it may take years for the effects of what they’ve done so far to stop."

Adams is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit seeking damages -- both physical, for property damage and lost property value, and psychological, for emotional distress.

"They're worried about ceilings collapsing, they're worried about their stoves, they're worried about when's the next big one? When's the next quake?" said Curt Marshall, an attorney from the New York-based Weitz & Luxenberg, which is working on the case. "It's very upsetting for most people."

The firm is helping sue Eagle Road Oil LLC and Cummings Oil Company, which it blames for lubricating the underground faults by injecting hydrofracking wastewater.

The lawsuit could take time to settle, but Marshall is encouraging any one who may have been affected in Pawnee, Noble and Creek counties to reach out.

"I never thought that Oklahoma of all places would become the earthquake capital of the United States," said Marshall, a Los Angeles native. "And it was avoidable. The warning signs were there and it's been a ticking time bomb."

The warning signs are the basis for a second lawsuit, filed by the Pawnee Nation against the federal government.

Executive Director Andrew Knife Chief says the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs should have more carefully weighed the risks before handing out drilling permits to a number of energy companies working on Indian land.

The point is to push back against irresponsible companies and energy producers, Knife Chief said.

"We have to kick the bad guys out and we have to allow the science to catch up with the technological advances of the industry," he said. "[We're doing this] to scream and shout to our federal departments that the Pawnee Nation is not going to allow a catastrophic event to be the linchpin to change. We don’t want that to happen. We want to stop this situation now."

The 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook up the Pawnee Nation offices too. Cracks are evident along several walls and ceilings. Concerned office workers have move their desks away from facades. Earthquake safety pamphlets line some shelves, after the temblor Knife Chief calls "a wake up call."

"Most people were just kind of getting used to them, like ‘oh did you feel that?’ kind of an amusement out of it," Knife Chief said of the smaller magnitude earthquakes that hit prior to Sept. 3. "People now recognize the danger that we’re talking about. We’re talking about earthquakes powerful enough to knock down a building and then where does the Pawnee Nation go?"

The lawsuit is what Knife Chief calls his "line in the sand," as the tribe works toward a solution before another serious earthquake does damage. Previous attempts at negotiation weren't moving fast enough, he said.

"We’re serious," he said. "Let’s solve this issue one way or another."