NEW MIDDLETOWN, Ohio - The first time Judy Pack felt the earth move, she was asleep in her house in rural Mahoning County, just a few houses from the Pennsylvania state line. A natural-gas processing plant had recently been built across the street; Hilcorp Energy, a Texas oil company, had started drilling and fracking for gas about 3 miles away.
NEW MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — The first time Judy Pack felt the earth move, she was asleep in her house in rural Mahoning County, just a few houses from the Pennsylvania state line.
A natural-gas processing plant had recently been built across the street; Hilcorp Energy, a Texas oil company, had started drilling and fracking for gas about 3 miles away.
Judy and her husband, Ralph, had almost become used to the lights blazing from the plant and the trucks rumbling down their usually quiet road. This felt different.
Mrs. Pack awoke; their bed was shaking.
It was about 2:30 a.m. on March 10, and a magnitude 3 earthquake had just rolled through the area. The epicenter of that quake was near one of Hilcorp’s wells.
State geologists aren’t sure whether Hilcorp’s fracking caused the earthquakes, but people who live around the wells say they must be connected.
To pull oil and natural gas from shale, companies drill vertically, then turn 90 degrees into the rock. Then they blast millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the shafts to free trapped oil and gas.
“That has to disturb the ground,” Mr. Pack said.
The Packs, like most people who live around them, signed a lease with Hilcorp a few years ago. The lease allows the company to look for and drill for gas on their land.
The company has nearly 3,000 leases in Mahoning County, according to property records. Hilcorp paid landowners an up-front amount for the right to drill on their land and, in most cases, has left the land alone.
The company paid the Packs about $4,600.
“I’m not against this fracking, but use every precaution you can to make it safe,” Mr. Pack said. “We’ve never had an earthquake before.”
The state says there were five earthquakes in Mahoning County this month. Geologists, however, say there were 12. They would be among the few earthquakes in the United States linked to fracking.
A series of earthquakes in Mahoning County in 2011 was tied to a fracking-waste-
injection well near Youngstown. That well was shut down by the state.
During the fracking process, fluids bubble back up with the gas. Oil and gas wells also produce saltwater contaminated with metals and radioactive materials trapped underground for millions of years. That waste often is injected into deep wells.
At the time of the first Youngstown earthquakes, there were 177 active waste-injection wells. Now, there are more than 188, and more are being drilled in eastern Ohio. But none is near the most-recent earthquakes, which is why geologists suspect the fracking operations.
Hilcorp has two well pads on property owned by a landfill not far from the Packs’ home, said Michael Heher, the landfill’s division manager.
After the earthquakes, the state ordered the company to halt its fracking operation there, though one of the wells continues to collect natural gas.
Hilcorp also is part-owner of the Hickory Bend cryogenic processing plant across the street from the Packs’ house. The plant, which is not operating yet, will take the mixture that comes out of the fracked shale and separate natural gas from other liquids.
Families who have leased their land to the company could get a cut of the proceeds if Hilcorp drills for gas on their land.
Greg Hohloch, who lives about 1,500 feet from the Hilcorp wells, said that money has helped people in a part of Ohio where steel and manufacturing jobs have disappeared.
In Poland Township, where Hilcorp is drilling and fracking, 7.1 percent of the people live in poverty. In nearby Springfield Township, where the Hickory Bend cryogenic processing plant is located, it’s 12 percent.
“The oil and gas industry is a huge boon to this part of the country,” Hohloch said.
The Hickory Bend plant created hundreds of jobs for construction workers, and people who owned a lot of land made hundreds of thousands of dollars leasing it to Hilcorp.
Hohloch, who owns 52 acres, said he was paid about $300,000 by the company.
He also said the earthquakes likely are connected to Hilcorp’s drilling but added that he doesn’t care much.
“You can’t even feel them,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. Let’s get it done.”
Not everyone in Mahoning County shares his enthusiasm.
Environmental activists have protested outside wells and at public meetings, voicing worries about water and air pollution and about the radioactive materials that come up with drilling waste.
Anthony Vecchiarelli, one of Hohloch’s neighbors, is no activist. He leased the 2 acres he lives on to Hilcorp but said he worries about getting methane in his well water and whether his home-insurance rates will rise if earthquakes continue to shake the area. Hilcorp is drilling less than a mile from his house.
“Those were small little earthquakes,” he said of the recent temblors. “What if there is a major earthquake where there is real property damage? Who is going to be responsible?”
Dispatch Reporter Jennifer Smith Richards contributed to this story.