China county suspends fracking after quakes worry residents

BEIJING — A county in western China has suspended drilling for shale gas after a protest by residents who suspected fracking work caused a series of earthquakes that led to two deaths.

The first quake hit Sichuan province's Rongxian county on Sunday morning, followed by two more, including a magnitude 4.9 temblor on Monday afternoon that caused the two fatalities. Twelve people were injured, the county government said in a message on its microblog.

Mining activities and handling of dangerous chemicals were also suspended but would be gradually restored, it said. It didn't directly link the quakes to fracking, but acknowledged residents' "suspicions."

Those measures were taken after about 1,000 residents accompanied by 2,000 onlookers rallied outside a local government office to demand that fracking be stopped, the government said in its statement. It said the crowd dispersed without incident.

Street protests over pollution and other environmental hazards are increasingly common in China, often organized over social media. The government statement said quakes were occurring "frequently" but gave no other details. The U.S. Geological Service said the 4.9 magnitude quake struck at a relatively shallow depth of 10 kilometers (6 miles).

Sichuan is regularly shaken by earthquakes, including a 7.9 magnitude quake in its mountainous western region on May 12, 2008, that killed nearly 90,000 people in China's worst natural disaster in recent decades.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves pumping water and chemicals at high pressure to fracture shale rock and release gas. The practice is suspected of causing seismic events in the U.S. and U.K.

However, the Sichuan Earthquake Administration appeared to rule out fracking as the cause of the quakes, saying the region had been especially seismically active of late for purely natural reasons. It said there was a possibility of a quake of roughly magnitude 5 striking the area, but that nothing more serious than that was anticipated. A quake of that magnitude is capable of causing considerable damage.

"Regarding this sort of mid-scale earthquake, one should actively prepare preparatory measures and reduce damage risks, avoid injuries due to inappropriate quake responses and neither believe nor spread rumors but maintain normal production activities and safeguard social stability," the administration said in a message posted on its website.

According to the USGS, reports of hydraulic fracturing causing earthquakes that are felt are "extremely rare."

However, it said that the wastewater produced in the fracking process can cause "induced" earthquakes when injected into wells deep in the ground.

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