Thousands of protesters tried to storm government offices in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan on Monday after a string of recent earthquakes that local residents blamed on fracking activities.
"There were probably 10,000 people there today, and the Rongxian county government shut its gates and wouldn't let us in," Rongxian resident Zeng Yulan told RFA on Monday. "Two people died in today's earthquakes, and a lot of others were injured and some houses collapsed, so a lot of people had nowhere to sleep tonight."
Zeng said local officials had clamped down on any media reporting of the quakes or the protests.
"The media weren't allowed to interview anyone or to report it," she said.
Zeng said local fracking operations, which blast gas from gaps in underlying shale using water and chemicals, are widely blamed for the earthquakes.
"There are usually earthquakes two or three hours after fracking starts, but they weren't previously as strong as the two that happened today," she said.
"This is a huge operation that didn't start until it received approval from the central government [in Beijing]," she said. "But it started causing earthquakes before it reached target output."
The Global Times newspaper, sister paper of ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said two quakes measuring magnitude 4.3 and 4.9 hit Rongxian county on Monday, killing two people.
Video footage of the incident showed a large crowd shouting and pushing against the gates of the county government building in Sichuan's Rongxian county, with uniformed officers pushing back.
In other scenes, local residents marched with banners calling for a fracking boycott, while an unidentified person lay motionless and bleeding amid scattered rubble from a damaged building.
The crowd reportedly dispersed after county officials promised over a public address system to halt shale gas exploitation, also known as fracking, official media reported.
"Some residents came this afternoon after the earthquake, and now they have calmed down and left," the paper quoted a Rongxian county official as saying.
"Government officials have responded to their requests," the official said.
Five earthquakes since January
The protests came after Rongxian county was hit by five earthquakes since January.
One 4.9 magnitude quake was recorded by the U.S. Geological Society on Feb. 23, with an epicenter around 35 kilometers northwest of Sichuan's Zigong city, according to a record on the USGS website.
News footage of one village in Rongxian showed rescuers helping elderly people to leave damaged buildings, and a large group of local residents taking refuge on open ground.
A resident of Zigong city surnamed Cai said she had felt the tremors.
"I don't know the details, but I know there were a few tremors," Cai said. "I was woken from my sleep by shaking at about 6.00 a.m. yesterday. It was pretty strong."
Sichuan-based seismologist Fan Xiao said fracking was the likely culprit.
"Fracking involves shooting water underground ... which can trigger earthquakes," Fan said. "It's entirely possible that human activity could produce earthquakes that are of stronger magnitude than previous natural ones that have occurred."
Fan said there were precedents in the industrial history of the U.S., including earthquakes triggered by waste-water management during the 1960s.
"If there are faultlines underground, then sending water down there can very easily cause the layers of rock to move around," he said.
He said fracking could also boost the strength and frequency of naturally occurring earthquakes in the region.
Chengdu-based writer Tan Zuoren, who researched the deaths of schoolchildren during the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, said he could understand public anger over fracking-related quakes.
"Large-scale human activity, whether it be fracking, drilling for oil or coal-mining, must have a triggering effect," Tan said. "We need to research and experiment to determine how strong the link is, and reach a scientific conclusion."
According to the Global Times, Sichuan is home to potential shale gas reserves of up to 5.18 trillion cubic meters. The region accounted for about one third of China's total shale gas output in 2017, according to state news agency Xinhua.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.