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Swiss Geologist On Trial For Causing Earthquakes 258

Posted by kdawson
from the should-have-called-dig-safe dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "BBC reports that Markus Haering's company had been working with the authorities in Basel, Switzerland to try to convert the heat in deep-seated rocks into electricity, but the project was suspended in 2006 when drilling triggered earthquakes, one of them with a magnitude of 3.4, leading Haering's company to pay out $9M in damages. Haering's team planned to drill a series of holes penetrating up to 3 miles (4.8 km) underground with water being pumped onto rocks with a temperature of more than 195C. Basel's location on top of a fault line – the upper Rhine trench – had been deliberately chosen because the heat was closer to the Earth's surface. A risk assessment has since shown that the prospect of further quakes is too high to continue drilling in the city. Haering faces up to five years in prison if the judge finds he intentionally damaged property. Haering has admitted the 3.4 magnitude earthquake was stronger than he had expected and that his team 'had very little knowledge of seismicity' before starting to drill, but called the quakes 'a learning process for everyone involved.' Despite Haering's trial, the Swiss appetite for geothermal projects has not diminished. Engineers are beginning preliminary drilling in Zurich to see whether that area was suitable for a similar scheme, and St. Gallen, in eastern Switzerland, plans to start work on its own geothermal project next year. Drilling efforts are being closely watched in the US, where the energy department is sponsoring more than 120 geothermal energy projects in several states."
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Swiss Geologist On Trial For Causing Earthquakes

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  • Blahgh (Score:4, Funny)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @04:58PM (#30449656) Journal

    Hey, gotta break a few eggs (and dishes) to make an omelet.

    • Re:Blahgh (Score:5, Informative)

      by Rei (128717) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:23PM (#30450014) Homepage

      Basel is EGS's "Altamont Pass". Altamont Pass was a wind farm that gave wind turbines their (undeserved) reputation as being bird killers. They built a wind farm right in the middle of a bird flyway, using low, fast-spinning turbines. It was a learning experience; nobody would be stupid enough to do that again.

      It's the same thing with EGS and earthquakes. In Basel, they deliberately fractured an active fault that had previously destroyed the city. Nobody is going to be dumb enough to do that again.

      • Re:Blahgh (Score:5, Funny)

        by pileated (53605) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:43PM (#30450354)

        When it comes to being dumb, never say never!

      • Re:Blahgh (Score:5, Funny)

        by svtdragon (917476) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:44PM (#30450372)

        Nobody is going to be dumb enough to do that again.

        I bet somebody once said that about people rebuilding cities on top of active faults.

      • Re:Blahgh (Score:5, Insightful)

        by digitalunity (19107) <digitalunityNO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:49PM (#30450456) Homepage

        I respectfully disagree. After living in the pacific northwest and experiencing numerous earthquakes firsthand, I can say with some authority that any structure built in a tectonically active region that cannot safely handle a 3.4 magnitude earthquake was built improperly.

        There were several 3.5ish earthquakes in Oregon where I lived over the last 20 years and as far as I know, broken picture frames were the extent of the damage. Geothermal energy production only makes sense in places where volcanic or tectonic activity is likely. It's not without risk either.

        It seems obvious that there was no intentional earthquake caused, but that was the natural result of fracturing the fault and 3.4 hardly sounds noteworthy. However, more detailed seismic study seems warranted before moving forward with any such project in the future.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          I can say with some authority that any structure built in a tectonically active region that cannot safely handle a 3.4 magnitude earthquake was built improperly.

          I live in Southern California, near Los Angeles. Around here, at least, magnitude 3.4 quakes are hardly worth mentioning. Instead of fining this company, the city should thank them for the object lesson they provided about why you don't ignore well-known earthquake safety techniques when you're building over or near a fault line.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by afidel (530433)
            Exactly, how does a 3.4 damage *anything*, there was a 3.3 here is Ohio back in April and I don't think anyone really noticed. The 1986 5.0 knocked me out of my seat in grade school (I was leaning back on two legs) but the only damage I recall was the separation of cinderblocks in one classroom causing the paint to crack, don't think they even bothered to repair it as it didn't present any kind of risk.
        • Re:Blahgh (Score:5, Insightful)

          by maugle (1369813) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @08:56PM (#30452652)
          In fact, the city should be grateful. Much better to have a magnitude 3.4 quake now, than to let the stress in the fault line accumulate until it breaks out in the form of a magnitude 8.0 quake.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Petrushka (815171)

          I can say with some authority that any structure built in a tectonically active region that cannot safely handle a 3.4 magnitude earthquake was built improperly.

          Well, it depends on how deep the quake is. If it's of any depth at all, you're not going to notice a 3.4 quake even if you're standing on the epicentre. But if a 3.4 quake were to happen, say, 20 km underfoot, you might have issues. In many ways the perceptual scale is a more useful human measure.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Runaway1956 (1322357) *

        Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.
                Albert Einstein

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by lxs (131946)

        "Bird killers" makes it sound so evil. Call them "Automated Dinosaur Culling Devices" and public acceptance will soar. Open a KFC underneath preferably with a large net on the roof and the natural cycle will be complete.

    • You mean: "You can't make an omelet without killing some people..."
    • Re:Blahgh (Score:4, Interesting)

      by nschubach (922175) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:27PM (#30450096) Journal

      I makes me wonder... I'm no geologist by any measure, but there's obviously pressure built up in that area. Wouldn't drilling holes to break holds and release some of that plate pressure by causing smaller quakes be a preferred course of action? Would it either be that or waiting for one giant major natural shift that could cause even more damage?

      • This is a neat idea. You could even schedule the things so they are the most convenient. Like inducing labor!

      • Re:Blahgh (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Applekid (993327) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:45PM (#30450390)

        Would it either be that or waiting for one giant major natural shift that could cause even more damage?

        No good deed goes unpunished?

        If you leave it alone and a natural disaster happens, you can't really sue God. If you drill and make mini-quakes and someone's windows break, you can definitely sue the driller.

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by box4831 (1126771)

          If you leave it alone and a natural disaster happens, you can't really sue God.

          No, but you can put in a coupon for a McDonalds McFlurry into the collection plate instead of the usual fiver next Sunday...

        • Re:Blahgh (Score:4, Interesting)

          by similar_name (1164087) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:18PM (#30452822)

          If you leave it alone and a natural disaster happens, you can't really sue God. If you drill and make mini-quakes and someone's windows break, you can definitely sue the driller.

          Makes me wonder. This is not the first time it's been believed that drilling triggered an earthquake. How long until you can sue because the city didn't pay for drillers to relieve pressure and major earthquake occurs.

    • So if the government wants them to make an omelet and company breaks some eggs, is it all the company's fault or does the government bear some responsibility?
    • lol (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Weezul (52464)

      Yes, I agree, indeed this is the whole point of an LLC. LLCs are horribly abused quite routinely. I often observe that chemical companies should really be charged with manslaughter for some of their pollutants. *But* a serious research project that happens to "break a few eggs" should really be let slide.

      A reasonable compromise might be awarding shares in this company to the damaged cities and the Swiss national science funding body, so the company current backers face dilution as punishment, but no imme

  • by Philotic (957984) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @04:59PM (#30449674)
    I doubt the geologist is at fault. However, his defense rests on really shaky ground.
    • They obviously forgot to employ sheep's bladders for earthquake prevention. Quite an oversite as this technique has been around at least since the 6th Century A.D.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Jophish (1489121)
      He isn't really at fault here.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ystar (898731)

      "Moria. You fear to go into those mines. The geologists dug too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness of Khazad-dum...lawsuit trolls..."

  • by Anonymous Coward

    We learned that causing earthquakes costs 9 million dollars and a 5 year stretch. I had always wondered.

  • No, me! ME! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Dr. Eggman (932300) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:00PM (#30449686)
    Blast it, I failed the broadcast take over announcing my intentions for world domination! It was my demostration of my earthquake machine! me, me ME!
    • by corbettw (214229)

      Calm down, Dick. Why can't you just go do some motivational speaking tours like your buddy George?

  • Damages? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Blakey Rat (99501) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:00PM (#30449696)

    These villagers were scamming the poor guy. $9 million in damages from a *3.4* quake? Cripes, a bus crossing in front of my house is close to 3.4... either their houses are made from eggshells, or this is the scam of the century.

    I'd feel terrible if useful research was suspended because of profiteering townsfolk.

    • Eggshell defense (Score:4, Informative)

      by SuperBanana (662181) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:12PM (#30449872)

      These villagers were scamming the poor guy. $9 million in damages from a *3.4* quake? Cripes, a bus crossing in front of my house is close to 3.4... either their houses are made from eggshells, or this is the scam of the century.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eggshell_skull

      Translation/application: if you demonstrate negligence and cause an earthquake, even if everyone's houses are made of chewing gum and paper- you're responsible for the damage, because had you not done what you did, the damage wouldn't have happened.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Hurricane78 (562437)

        You forgot, that if you did not know that the houses were made of eggshells, and it is generally assumed that houses are not made of eggshells, that this would rather be a nasty trap, and that the lawsuit would in that case be a scam tactic.

      • Translation/application: if you demonstrate negligence and cause an earthquake, even if everyone's houses are made of chewing gum and paper

        FWIW, I'd bet a well-designed chewing-gum-and-paper house is more earthquake resistant than some of the concrete-steel-and-wood houses. At the very least, it'd be cheaper to build, assuming a a very large army of gum chewers, thus resulting in reduced liability for damages.

      • by Golddess (1361003)

        either their houses are made from eggshells, or this is the scam of the century.

        I don't think GP meant that the guy shouldn't pay, just that it seems highly suspect that there is so much damage to be paid for.

        I have no experience with quakes, so I'm just going by what GP said as to what a 3.4 quake would do.

        • 3.4 magnitude is really small. Any significant structural damage is likely the fault of the design of those structures. Any building, whether in a tectonically active region or not should be designed and built to meet a minimum standard for safety. I don't know where that line should be, but in this case I would say the engineer shouldn't be culpable. $9M is a lot of damages for such a tiny earthquake.

          • by winwar (114053)

            "I don't know where that line should be, but in this case I would say the engineer shouldn't be culpable."

            The engineer should be culpable because he was willfully negligent. If you inject fluids into a fault zone you tend to generate earthquakes. This is undergraduate level geology knowledge.

            • by afidel (530433) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @08:09PM (#30452204)
              Actually I think the engineers who designed and built the buildings should be held negligent, building a structure that takes *any* damage from a 3.4 in a fault zone should be criminal. Seriously we get earthquakes on that magnitude here in Ohio on an almost yearly basis, in the middle of the freaking NA plate. If you are in a geothermally active country you should be expecting a heck of a lot more than that!
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      I wonder if they had anyone from Iceland consulting on this. They have lots of geothermal heating and power generation there on a geologically active land mass, but AFAIK, they've avoided triggering earthquakes.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Rei (128717)

        This is a different tech than most of Iceland's geothermal: EGS. Most of Iceland's geothermal is from natural reservoirs (although Iceland is starting to move in the direction of EGS, too).

    • Seismic scale for Europe? [wikipedia.org]

      I know nothing about Europe or Seismic Scales... But, if that is correct, then WTF?
    • Not to mention that we can't predict when an earthquake will strike or what magnitude it will be. Yet here they are, claiming that he willfully damaged property? I can't even fathom reckless disregard for safety in this context, but willful destruction? Can I sue palmreaders for willful damage of my self-esteem?

      • by Blakey Rat (99501)

        The only person at fault here is the local building code, if they let people inhabit buildings that can't withstand anything less than a 5.0 on the Richter. (Assuming that the people who filed for damages actually had damages... which I highly doubt.)

      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        I can't even fathom reckless disregard for safety in this context, but willful destruction?

        If he had reason to believe that his tests could cause an earthquake, yet proceeded anyway, that's willful. It doesn't matter that causing destruction wasn't actually his goal. You can't get away from the consequences of your actions -- in particular those you were aware of in advance -- by writing them off as "undesirable side-effects" or "collateral damage".

        Though in TFA he says those involved in the project had "

    • Re:Damages? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Peregr1n (904456) <ian.a.ferguson@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @06:38PM (#30451152) Homepage

      Some parts of the world are more used to earthquakes than others, and plan accordingly. I'm guessing (from a quick glance at your blog) that you're in the USA - western? Your houses are probably designed to be quake-proof, and a 3.4 quake will do nothing but rattle your plates. Here in Europe most housing is traditional stone, and earthquakes are something that happens in far-flung corners of the Earth.
      Disclaimer - I don't know how severe a 3.4 quake is, maybe it really is inconsequential - but my point still stands in that it probably caused the residents of Basel to shit themselves. (Far from villagers, too, BTW)

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by jrumney (197329)
        I grew up in an earthquake prone zone. The threshold for rattling plates is at least 4.0, maybe even 4.5. Real damage doesn't really occur until 6.0, maybe 5.5 in areas where houses aren't built for it. And the Richter scale is logarithmic - 3.4 really is inconsequential, most people wouldn't even feel it.
    • by Chris Burke (6130)

      either their houses are made from eggshells, or this is the scam of the century.

      Eh, not really. 3.4 may be a fairly trivial earthquake, but $9 million is a pretty trivial amount for total damages to a decent-sized city from an earthquake. You don't need very many office buildings with broken windows or extremely old (and thus not in any way quake-proof) buildings to be slightly damaged across a city to equal $9mil. If the epicenter was nearby, and it sounds like it was, then that doesn't strike me as unr

  • US project shut down (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rufus211 (221883) <rufus-slashdot@h ... g ['kis' in gap]> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:06PM (#30449764) Homepage

    Thankfully a project by the same company just north of San Francisco has been shut down. The last thing CA needs is more earthquakes.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/12/science/earth/12quake.html [nytimes.com]

  • 1. Drill and Cause Earthquakes

    2. ????

    3. Profit!

  • by Z1NG (953122)
    In other news, Swiss marine biologist accused of attaching lasers to the heads of sharks.
    Seriously, if this guy changes his name to Dr. Quake or some other reasonable mad scientist name his only punishment should be a lecture from the super hero of his choice.
    __________
    On a more serious note, this is pretty scary. His excuse that the result was stronger than he expected is lame - when dealing with things of this magnitude you should try to be as certain as possible. Calling such a damaging incident
  • Forgive my lack of knowledge of Swiss law but I'm going to assume proving he intentionally damaged property would require proving intent. I'm extraordinarily skeptical that there was any.

    • Re:Intentionally? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Red Flayer (890720) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:26PM (#30450076) Journal
      I'm not familiar with Swiss law either. This may be a lost-in-translation issue. If he knew his actions would cause damage, and continued in those actions anyway, then likely he has committed some crime. The specific word "intent" may not be the right one here... "willful" may be a better translation/interpretation.
  • I'm pretty skeptical about many of the miraculous so-called "green energy" projects that abound. But if you don't even try them, then how will you know whether or not they'll work? This seems like a message to innovators and inventors; yeah, we want your new technologies, but if you screw up, you go to jail.

    • If "screwing up" involves widespread damage to other people's property and/or person, that is pretty much how it goes.

      The "You can't do that, because science hurts my precious tender feelings!" crowd are idiots, and ought not to be listened to; but the notion that you can cavalierly take risks with other people's lives and property(Your own? knock yourself out.) because they are working for "progress" is pretty broken.
  • by mrami (664567) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:15PM (#30449910) Homepage
    those pesky minarets! Yeppers!
  • Is there any real evidence that the earthquake wasn't a coincidence and not due to the drilling? The article was rather thin.

  • by SuperBanana (662181) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:17PM (#30449952)

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/08/business/energy-environment/08fracking.html

    The drilling boom is raising concern in many parts of the country, and the reaction is creating political obstacles for the gas industry. Hazards like methane contamination of drinking water wells, long known in regions where gas production was common, are spreading to populous areas that have little history of coping with such risks, but happen to sit atop shale beds.

    And a more worrisome possibility has come to light. A string of incidents in places like Wyoming and Pennsylvania in recent years has pointed to a possible link between hydraulic fracturing and pollution of groundwater supplies. In the worst case, such pollution could damage crucial supplies of water used for drinking and agriculture

    It isn't going to be climate change that kills us. We won't have any clean water to drink. Fun fact: the "safe water drinking act" isn't being enforced by the EPA [nytimes.com], and even water that has very unhealthy level of arsenic is "safe". Does a 1-in-600 chance of getting bladder cancer sound "safe" to you?

    • Does a 1-in-600 chance of getting bladder cancer sound "safe" to you?

      Actually, yeah it does.

    • I just visited Mount Rushmore, and there are signs on the fountains stating that the EPA lowered the accepted arsenic level from 50ppm to 10ppm, but the water there actually has 12ppm. Are you 1/600 Rushmore tourists are going to get bladder cancer due to the 20% extra arsenic in the Coke?

  • by Roskolnikov (68772) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:18PM (#30449962)

    This has all happened before and apparently will happen again:

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/lr247770l2272741/ [springerlink.com]

    I recall these earthquakes were triggered by chemical weapon disposal, same plot though, dig a big deep hole and put liquid in.....
    ]

  • Unless his name is 'Rumble,' and he popped out of a walkman I don't see how this is possible.
  • Since they mentioned criminal charges, I just imagined him being placed in a cell with other suspects...

    Cellmate: "What are you in for?"

    Haering: "Causing earthquakes."

    • by whoever57 (658626)

      or --
      Cellmate: "What are you in for?"

      Haering: 'i made the earth move in thousands of houses'

  • the temperature was in the millions of degrees? What's with this 195C sissy stuff?

  • by peter303 (12292) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:29PM (#30450130)
    The big eye-opener was the injection of fluid at Rocky Mountain Arsenal near denver causing medium size quakes in 1965. This is called induced seismicity [nyx.net]. Its been seen around new dams (possibility in last years large Sichuan quake), geothermal drilling, irrigation fluid disposal, water table drops, etc.

    Teh question really is political. Was the possibility of I.S. included in the pre-project environmental study? Did they ignore signs of it starting? Was it really caused by their activities.
  • There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!

    Well, at least they didn't try this in Yellowstone...

  • I hear Lex Luther is hiring.

    • by Kozz (7764)

      Lex Luthor: "Everyone's got their faults. Mine's in California."

  • Switzerland: The Bond Villain of the European Union...

    No wonder they have all of the Gold there.....

    "Pay us one Beeellion dollars or your cities get shaken, not stirred..."

  • I'm eager to see how this trial's decisions will impact the trial against the LHC physicists team in a few months for causing rapid gravitational earth implosion. At 9M$ for a few km of earth, this could get quite expensive!

    • But collecting the settlement will be tricky, when all the world's assets, fiat currencies, kittens, and collectible figurines have been scrunched into a point mass...
    • by radtea (464814)

      I'm eager to see how this trial's decisions will impact the trial against the LHC physicists team in a few months for causing rapid gravitational earth implosion

      The what? Don't you mean the LHC physicists team turning everyone on on Earth into a penguin?

      How is it that everyone who thinks the LHC might create black holes fails to notice the equally plausible grand unification of general relativity and evolution that could result in such mass cross-species conversion due to reprogramming of our DNA?

  • by Max_W (812974) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:43PM (#30450346)

    All this to produce electricity to dry clothing in the electric dryers. Just let people dry clothing and linen on the ropes in the sun and wind.

    Billions and billions of such drying wet items will cool the planet. Because it will be daily, and it will be in billions.

    We are trying to solve by engineering means a problem which is not a technical problem. It is a problem in our heads.

  • In Iceland.... (Score:3, Informative)

    by jonfr (888673) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:44PM (#30450366) Homepage

    Here in Iceland they have been pumping down Co2 for testing. That is down with water, but the result is the same, it has created earthquakes. The largest one was about ML2.0 before they stopped the experiment.

    I don't know why it was stopped. But it is quite oblivious that pressure changes create earthquakes faster then one might think.

    However, in Iceland they where pumping down that water within a active volcano with a lot of fault lines.

  • Eh, Tesla did it 100 years ago, if the stories and his autobiography are to be believed :)

  • by Brad Eleven (165911) <brad.eleven@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:57PM (#30450580) Homepage Journal
    ... trying to selectively topple minarets [wikipedia.org].
  • He should have employed sheep's bladders.

  • impossible (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lord Ender (156273) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @06:40PM (#30451170) Homepage

    You can't "cause" an earthquake. They are caused by tectonic pressure. You may be able to adjust the timing of one, though.

    Perhaps this man's 3.4 quake actually saved the village from having a 4.0 quake a few years later! Did anyone think of that? Perhaps they should be giving him a medal.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by pitchpipe (708843)

      You can't "cause" an earthquake. They are caused by tectonic pressure. You may be able to adjust the timing of one, though.

      You are absolutely right. How about a bunch of small quakes rather than one large one. I live in Salt Lake City which geologists say lies on a large fault that is due for a large quake. I'd much rather have a planned quake, even if it was fairly large rather than a huge unexpected one. I guarantee that if that happens I'll know people who'll die. I just really hope that when it does happen it isn't anyone too close to me. Selfish I know, but aren't we all? I just wonder why nobody in that village see

  • The guy wants to produce useful energy from a fault line location with drills and geothermal power plants? Pssssh amateur. Here in California we learned a long time ago that the best type of power plant to build on a fault line [wikipedia.org] is the nuclear variant.

    That's how we roll. =D
  • A Travesty (Score:3, Interesting)

    by b4upoo (166390) on Wednesday December 16, 2009 @02:55AM (#30454680)

    It is a shame that this fellow is going to be on trial. He obviously had no intent to do harm. And this article does not indicate the he was irresponsible in his efforts. Sometimes bad things happen but that does not mean that someone should be punished.

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.

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