The Pawnee Nation filed a lawsuit in its tribal court March 3, accusing several oil companies actively drilling in Oklahoma of causing that state’s largest-ever recorded earthquake and damaging historical tribal buildings that are nearly a century old.
The lawsuit represents the 3,200-member Pawnee tribe in north-central Oklahoma. According to the complaint, the oil companies named as defendants triggered the earthquake by injecting wastewater into wells and destabilizing subterranean layers of bedrock and faults, causing the earth to shift.
The complaint is the first earthquake-related litigation to be heard in a tribal court. If it goes to trial, it will be heard by a five-person jury composed of Pawnee tribal members. Any appeal of that jury’s decision would go to a tribal supreme court, whose decision is final. Once a tribal court decision becomes final, it goes to a state district court for enforcement the same as any other judgement.
“We are a sovereign nation and we have the rule of law here,” Andrew Knife Chief, the Pawnee Nation’s executive director, told the Associated Press. “We’re using our tribal laws, our tribal processes to hold these guys accountable. The damage was done to the Pawnee Nation and the folks that live on trust land.”
The earthquake occurred on Sep. 3, 2016, in the northwestern part of the state nine miles outside of Pawnee, Oklahoma, about 55 miles northwest of Tulsa. The quake was felt throughout the Midwest and as far away as central Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, Iowa, and Arizona.
Seismic activity used to be relatively rare in Oklahoma. In 2005, there were just three quakes with a magnitude of 2.5 or higher in the state. In 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey recorded 2,500 earthquakes of a 2.5 magnitude or higher – a dramatic increase proportionate to the rise in energy drilling activity.
Oil and gas drilling companies dispose of wastewater, a byproduct of drilling, by injecting it deep in the earth. After the September quake, Oklahoma Corporation Commission regulators directed oil and gas producers to either close injection wells or reduce the volume of fluids they inject.
According to the AP, “The sandstone facade of some buildings fell, several others were cracked and one man suffered a minor head injury when part of a fireplace fell on him.” One of the buildings that was heavily damaged is the former Pawnee Nation Indian School, a sandstone building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now used as the tribe’s administrative offices.
Oklahoma’s governor declared a state of emergency for the entire county.
“We have extensive cracks throughout all the walls on every single one of these historic buildings, and the cracks run through the entire width of the walls,” Knife Chief told the AP. “We had mortar pop. We had roofs sag. We have ceilings that are bowing. Cracks all around walls and windows.”