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Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Earthquake Ballad

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Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Earthquake Ballad


Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Earthquake Ballad

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Since 2005, more than 3,000 natural gas wells have been drilled in or near Faulkner County, Arkansas. They're in a formation known as the Fayetteville Shale. Each well was fracked. That means millions of gallons of water and some chemicals were injected into the shale. That breaks the rock and allows extraction of embedded natural gas.

In the town of Greenbrier, almost everyone has a story about how the natural gas industry has bolstered the community. But recently, residents have had to contend with another unexpected boom; a swarm of mysterious earthquakes began last fall - small, but still scary. They occurred along the previous unknown fault between Greenbrier and the tiny town of Guy.

Producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister traveled to Arkansas to talk to people about what's going on under their feet. And they shared what they heard with the musician Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, who contributed an original song inspired by these voices.

Mr. SCOTT AUSBROOKS (Geohazards Supervisor, Arkansas Geological Survey): The original ones that we heard here were like thunderclaps - boom - but there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

(Soundbite of a 911 call)

Unidentified Woman #1: Conway 911, where's your emergency?

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, my house just shook really bad.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes, it probably was the earthquake.

Unidentified Man #2: You can hear it coming towards you, kind of like you would a train. You feel it under your feet.

Unidentified Man #1: It shook our whole house about off the foundation, Ma'am.

(Soundbite of news clips)

Unidentified Woman #3: Good evening. Since September, there have been 843 earthquakes in the Greenbrier-Guy Swarm. This fault was previously unknown until earthquakes began.

Mr. AUSBROOKS: My name is Scott Ausbrooks. I'm the geohazard supervisor with the Arkansas Geological Survey. That's one thing that's very disconcerting, is to have the ground move under your feet. When it starts moving, you start getting concerned.

(Soundbite of song, "Mother Nature Kneels")

Mr. BONNIE PRINCE BILLY (Singer/Musician): (Singing) Waves under our feet begin and end a talk between a head and core so sweet.

Unidentified Woman #2: Three forty-nine A.M., probably about a 3.5.

Unidentified Man #2: One twenty P.M., there was a boom.

Unidentified Woman #2: Four fifty-two A.M., about a two-point.

Mr. AUSBROOKS: What we consider the date the swarm started was around the 23rd of September of 2010.

Unidentified Woman #2: Seven A.M., about another two-point.

Unidentified Man #2: Seven A.M., boom.

Mr. AUSBROOKS: And in some cases we'd have hundreds in a 12-hour period.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...with a large boom.

Unidentified Man #3: It's really stressful.

(Soundbite of "Mother Nature Kneels")

Mr. BILLY: (Singing) And Earth makes me tremble and I return the favor. I am man, Earth. And you may know my walk will never waiver.

(Soundbite of a news clip)

Unidentified Man #4: Dozens of earthquakes in central Arkansas have gained national attention. And tonight, they can still be felt. But why are they happening?

Dr. STEVE HORTON (Seismologist, Center for Earthquake Research and Information, University of Memphis): My name's Steve Horton. I'm a seismologist and a research scientist at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis.

Back in 1982, there was a swarm of earthquakes very close to where these earthquakes are happening in the town of Enola.

Ms. MARIE WILSON: I'm Marie Wilson. There have been tiny shakes over in the Enola area for years and years and years. And I think that it's just getting bigger and bigger underground.

Dr. HORTON: That could just be a natural cycle in the seismic activity rate in the area. If the injection wells weren't there, it would not have surprised me to have this seismic activity. But the injection wells are there.

(Soundbite of "Mother Nature Kneels")

Mr. BILLY: (Singing) Earth makes me tremble and I return the favor.

Mr. AUSBROOKS: We're on Highway 25. We're just east of Guy and we're directly across from the SRE injection well.

(Soundbite of "Mother Nature Kneels")

Mr. BILLY: (Singing) I am man, Earth. And you may know my walk will never waiver.

MR. AUSBROOKS: What we do see are these clusters of earthquakes, like here, here, here and here. What is proximal to these clusters of earthquakes is injection well, injection well, injection well.

DR. HORTON: Ninety-eight percent of those earthquakes that have happened since 2009 have been within five kilometers of three specific injection wells.

MR. AUSBROOKS: These injection wells went online just a couple of months prior to all these earthquakes happening.

Unidentified Man #5: In those injection wells, they place water that's used in the fracking process.

MR. AUSBROOKS: This water is basically saline water and it does have chemicals.

Unidentified Man #5: To frack a well, it takes 1,200 tractor trailer-loads of water. Okay, well, that water comes back and they have to do something with it.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

Unidentified Man #5: You know, it's all going in a hole in the ground, not very big. I'm going to say it's probably 12, 14-inch diameter.

MR. AUSBROOKS: And then the well goes down over a mile. Of course, they've done over 100 million gallon, from July to February. That's equivalent to a 30-acre lake, 10-feet deep. The weight of that water's probably in excess of a billion pounds.

(Soundbite of "Mother Nature Kneels")

Mr. BILLY: (Singing) (unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman #4: We need to pull together as a community.

Unidentified Man #6: Then they had a meeting at the Guy school.

Ms. SHEILA MAXWELL (Director, Office of Emergency Management, Faulkner County): My name is Sheila Maxwell and I'm the director of the Faulkner County Office of Emergency Management. Their big question was, well, is all this drilling causing this?

Unidentified Man #4: If the earthquakes continue to get stronger and stronger and stronger, it's going to be people's homes ruined and possibly people's lives.

Mr. DAVE MARTINI (Chief, Guy Police Department): My name's Dave Martini. I'm the chief of police, Guy Police Department. I don't know if they're manmade or I don't know if they're act of God. But I'd like to know.

Mr. DIRK DETURK: Since the gas company has come here, that's when I started hearing the booms and feeling the ground shake. My name is Dirk DeTurk and I happen to be situated between two injection wells.

So how are they not related?

Ms. SHELBY WILCOX (Member, Roadrunners Extension Homemakers Club): I'm Shelby Wilcox, and I'm with the Roadrunners Extension Homemakers Club. I would hope that the gas and oil industry would not be blamed because it has been a tremendous economic boon to this area.

Mr. MARK LEDBETTER (Liaison, Office of Emergency Management, Faulkner County): I'm Mark Ledbetter. I'm the liaison for Faulkner County to the gas industry. There's a lot of people up here that have had this land for a lot of years that didn't have anything, you know. And now these people finally are getting something out of their land.

Ms. WILCOX: We have received leases from the gas company on our land.

Unidentified Man #7: We got a swimming pool.

Unidentified Man #8: You saw a couple tractors, you know, show up and a hay bailer.

Unidentified Man #9: These folks here were living in a mobile home. They got a gas well right across from them. They built them a new house.

Ms. WILCOX: My son has found employment.

Judge JIMMY HART (Conway County): My name is Jimmy Hart and I'm the Conway County judge. You know, I'm a red-blooded American. That's the great thing about this whole thing we're all capitalists. You know, you can go talk to the local John Deere dealer or you can go talk to a local car dealer, and this money rolls over six or seven times.

Ms. ZONDRA SHARP (Owner, Gimme Some Sugar Bakeshoppe): My name is Zondra Sharp, and I'm the owner of Gimme Some Sugar Bakeshoppe and cakery in Greenbrier/Spring Hill, Arkansas. If I say something negative towards the gas companies, well, then they might say, oh, well she's against us, I'm not going to do business with her.

(Soundbite of "Mother Nature Kneels")

Mr. BILLY: (Singing) Some cower, intimidated. And cowering, they call this action love.

Unidentified Man #10: Good morning, YouTube. It's 8:13 A.M., February 25th, 2011, and I have another earthquake update for you for Arkansas. We have a 3.1, and two 3.6 magnitude earthquakes now.

Unidentified Woman #5: They were getting spooky.

Unidentified Man #10: It's just every day. We're getting bombarded over here.

Unidentified Woman #5: I thought, good grief, how bad is this going to get?

MR. AUSBROOKS: If it was to rupture all at one time, you could generate up to a magnitude six earthquake. If you think about the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, it was only a 6.3.

Unidentified Woman #5: We were nervous, because practically our life savings is in a new home that we just finished in December.

Mr. DETURK: You don't know if the next one is the one the house is coming down. It's that scary.

Unidentified Man #10: They're getting bigger. The big one's coming soon.

Unidentified Woman #6: And of course, the big one, there was like a loud sonic boom.

Unidentified Man #11: Sounded kind of like a bowling ball coming.

(Soundbite of a news clip)

Unidentified Man #7: Hey, guys. The magnitude 4.7 earthquake hit just after 11:00 last night and was felt for hundreds of miles

Ms. SHARP: The 4.7 scared the goodness out of me. I was at my house and I could actually see my floor making waves.

Mr. DETURK: Usually they're a snap of the finger - boom, shake, done. But this one was a boom, shake, shake, shake, shake.

Ms. SHARP: It just shook, shook, shook, shook, shook.

Unidentified Woman #5: And I was going I need to put seatbelts on my bed and my recliner. I'm going to be bouncing out of here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. AUSBROOKS: That's the largest earthquake we've had in Arkansas in 35 years.

Mr. DETURK: And it was shortly after that they shut the injection wells down.

(Soundbite of a news clip)

Unidentified Man #12: Two companies have stopped using injection wells now near the site of the recent swarm of earthquakes, after an emergency meeting of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission.

Unidentified Woman #7: When they decided to stop the injection wells it was a relief.

(Soundbite of a news clip)

Unidentified Man #12: And the companies, they basically said that they agreed to temporarily shut down because they wanted to have enough time to get the evidence to support that there is no connection between those injections and the earthquakes.

Unidentified Man #13: Or maybe there is a connection. We'll find out. All right, Dustin. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Mother Nature Kneels")

Mr. BILLY: (Singing) You, oh, Earth, you have stuck it to us and terrorized from inside and above.

Unidentified Man #14: Since they've stopped putting water down in the hole down there, all the shaking stopped out here.

Unidentified Man #15: We've seen about a 50 percent reduction in the number of events. Could be simply part of the natural ebb and flow, or it could be in relation to the fact that they actually shut the wells down.

Unidentified Woman #8: I'm a country girl and this is how I look at things, but you just dig you a little trench and you blast water at high pressures, what's it do? It makes it bigger. It erodes it, you know. And of course, I look at a fault that way.

(Soundbite of song, "Mother Nature Kneels")

Mr. BILLY: (singing) Well, I don't, I stamp and trample like killing moles with heels and before my manmade way, even Mother Nature kneels.

Unidentified Man #16: The question for the oil and gas commission is going to be: Is it wise or is it prudent to inject millions of gallons of water in the vicinity of an active fault? That's the question that's going to have to be answered by someone other than me.

(Soundbite of song, "Mother Nature Kneels")

Mr. BILLY: (Singing) Even Mother Nature kneels. Even Mother Nature kneels.

NORRIS: The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission will decide July 26 whether to permanently close the injection wells closest to the fault. The companies that operate the wells refused to grant interviews for this story, but a spokesman for one of them responded in an email that the earthquakes are a, quote, "natural event."

The extraction of natural gas continues in the area. Our story, "The Natural State," was produced by Elizabeth Meister and Dan Collison for Long Haul Production. The song "Mother Nature Kneels" was written and performed by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. That song is streaming at

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