Q&A with Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi
Our reporting found toxic exposures in Pennsylvania families living near fracking. What do politicians have to say?
On March 1, EHN published Fractured, a 4-part series documenting the results of a two-year study on fracking and health, which found high levels of toxic chemicals in the bodies of Pennsylvania families in fracking communities.
In response to the reporting, 35 lawmakers representing both the state House and Senate issued a public letter calling on Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to take "immediate action in response to the ongoing harm" from fracking.
EHN reached out to 37 other local and state lawmakers who didn't sign the letter to share our findings and request a response. Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi was among them.
Democrat Larry Maggi is currently serving his fifth term on the Board of Commissioners of Washington County, which is responsible for oversight of the county's financial affairs. He is one of three such commissioners, and is the board's vice chairman. He is the only one of the three commissioners who agreed to speak with EHN following the publication of Fractured (Prior to publication, Maggi's co-commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan provided general comments about the industry's impacts in Washington County which are included in the series).
Prior to being elected commissioner in 2003, Maggi spent 24 years working as a Pennsylvania state trooper, and six years as the sheriff of Washington County.
EHN reporter Kristina Marusic connected with Commissioner Maggi to discuss the findings of her 2-year study on fracking and health, detailed in the four-part series Fractured, and to learn more about his position on fracking.
EHN: What would you say to the parents who learned through this investigation that their children had off-the charts levels of exposure to harmful chemicals, and to other families who live near fracking wells and are concerned for their health after reading this report?
Maggi: That would be a very difficult conversation. I would feel for them. I have children and I have seven grandchildren that live in this area. I'd say we would try to do everything possible we could to keep people healthy and keep people whole.
EHN: How often do you hear concerns about the health impacts of fracking from the communities you serve? How have you attempted to address those concerns?
Maggi: We do hear concerns. There are different groups and different individuals that have expressed concerns, and we take that very serious in county government. I've been a long term resident here in Washington County, spanning the days when we had coal mining and steel mills and a lot of heavy industry that literally ravaged the environment, and we're just now recouping from that. We still have red mineral water running out of some of these abandoned mines from the beginning of the 20th century now.
We're trying to find a happy medium [with the oil and gas industry] but I feel that without EPA [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and DEP [the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection] coming down with some new regulations helping to make things safer we're not totally there yet. We have to continue to strive to improve in Pennsylvania, especially in Washington County where we've already seen the ravages of unmitigated and unchecked industrial development.
We've been used as a forum for lobbyists to speak with state reps, senators, and federally elected officials about their concerns over the industry, and we've also set aside some of the windfall we got from the economic boom that came with the oil and gas industry to deal with any future environmental issues that might come up that we may not be aware of now. We've seen in the past where there's all of a sudden there's issues with radioactive waste or stagnant water pollution thirty or forty or fifty years later from industries that have left. So we've set up a fund at the county level to deal with those types of problems in the future when and if they should arise.
I personally serve on the Washington County Conservation District, and we have set pretty stringent rules and regulations when it comes to water use and groundwater protection.
EHN: In light of these new findings, do you think that policymakers in Pennsylvania are currently doing enough to protect people who live near fracking wells and related infrastructure?
Maggi: I do. In the past we've gotten carried away in Washington County. We had coal mines and steel mills that really polluted our environment and our rivers… so we've got to be vigilant. We were in a recession in a depressed area, so when the oil and gas oil industry came back we all saw money and we jumped right into it.
At the county level we don't have much policing or enforcement apart from the Conservation District, but we can be helpful as lobbyists because state and federal lawmakers will listen to us. I've been to some of those meetings with these families who had children exposed to chemicals and I know it's frustrating. I have seven grandchildren that live here in Washington County. I'm at my daughter's house right now and I can see a well from where I'm sitting. It does concern me. We try to do the best we can from our level [of government]. It's really a delicate balance between economic health and families' health, which is so important. We're human so sometimes we fail at it—we don't always make the right decisions—but most people try to do the right thing.
EHN: So you said you do think that policymakers are doing enough to protect people from potential harms from fracking, but you also just acknowledged that sometimes policy makers don't always make the right decision. My research showed that kids who live near fracking wells in Washington County are facing higher than average levels of exposure to toxic chemicals, and other research has suggested that if wells were further away from homes and schools, people would be better protected from those types of exposures.
In Colorado, for example, their equivalent of the DEP did its own long-term air monitoring study and found that emissions from fracking wells could reach levels high enough to harm human health up to 2,000 feet away, so they just changed their setback distance from 500 feet—which is what Pennsylvania's is—to 2,000 feet. I spoke with Colorado lawmakers about this for my reporting and they were really proud of that work, which they believe will go a long way toward protecting residents there. Do you think we should do something similar here?
Maggi: I've not seen enough of the research on setbacks but I know there are conflicting studies. Our professional people who've gotten into the weeds on setbacks have said that most of the setback issues here are related to aesthetic and property issues to be quite frank. My understanding is these wells don't give off a lot of emissions. We do have a transmission site in the middle of the county which is a different story. When it comes to individual wells most of the complaints I've heard from residents are about aesthetics, property values, and occasionally traffic. I'm real active in veteran's affairs and I even remember an incident where they planned to drill wells within 200 or 300 feet of the grave of a medal of honor recipient in a cemetery. There were no health issues raised, but some people were concerned about the aesthetic part of having these wells near the grave of a national hero, so the industry did relocate those.
I'm not passing the buck, but we don't have county zoning here in Washington County. So is it [health issues related to fracking] on our radar? Absolutely. Is it a concern? Absolutely. But the only place we have the ability to do any enforcement is with the Washington County Conservation District. Otherwise we have no say, and all we can do is support residents who want to lobby with state and federal legislators about this, which we have sometimes done.
EHN: Can you say more about the lack of zoning in Washington County?
Maggi: Most of the more populous counties in Pennsylvania have county-wide zoning, so county officials are in charge of enforcing zoning rules and regulations, which a lot of oil and gas wells fall under. People in Washington County are fiercely independent—I'm not saying that's a good thing, I'm just telling you the reality of it—and people here do not want any type of zoning. We do have zoning in the townships which are enforced at the township level but no county zoning. Peters township is populous, for example, so they have zoning and everything goes through the local board, whether a well or a house, but we don't have an ability for anyone to appeal to us at the county level about those things. I'm not sure that's good.
It's been this way since long before I came into office. We've tried to institute zoning regulations in the past but there was no interest. People here are fiercely independent and they perceive it as big government telling them what to do. That's the attitude in everything here. We're a rural community and we have a large agricultural community and people don't want anybody saying what they can and can't do with their property. If somebody wants to put a junkyard in the middle of their farm or a housing plan in their front yard, they don't want anyone telling them they can't. And that applies to oil and gas wells too. Again I'm not saying I agree with that, I'm saying it's how people are here. I've tried to argue that zoning would let us make sure that if something undesirable like an exotic bookstore tries to move in next door, we have the ability to stop it, but the response has been, "well, you have to take some bad with the good." That's the feeling in Washington County.
EHN: Do you support the development of petrochemical facilities in the region? If so, how do you respond to concerns that this industry will create demand for many additional fracking wells, which could lead to dangerous exposures and negative health impacts for Pennsylvanians?
Maggi: I do. I kind of consider myself an environmentalist. I grew up on a farm and I feel a little different than the people I was just talking about, but we've got to have a balance and the plant is going in one way or the other—if not in Beaver County then in Ohio or somewhere else. I think it will help sustain economic health and wellbeing for a long time to come and I do support that downstream growth. With that comes additional problems, I understand that. This can be debated, but I think we learned a lot from being ravaged by the coal mines and the steel industry. I can look to my right beyond the trees and see the plant that built part of the atomic bomb in the 1950s and years later it's all boarded up and no one can get in because it's radioactive. I know things can pop up we don't know about now so I think we have to be cautious and have intelligent discussions about doing everything possible to keep it safe.
EHN: Researchers at Duquesne University have estimated that the plant will require gas from 1,000 new fracked wells per year. Do you think more wells coming to Washington County would be a good thing?
Maggi: I do see more wells coming into Washington county as a positive. When you say drilling new wells, right now we have a lot of wells that have been capped for several years because the product isn't being used, so I don't see an influx of new wells, but I do see a lot more existing assets, reserves from wells that have been tapped but aren't being used being pulled out for the cracker plant.
I think it will open up drilling some. We've been told that by the industry, but I don't think it will be a real proliferation like it was in 2010 and 2012, at least in Washington County. I think it will be spread across other counties too, like Greene County and Fayette County.
EHN: Is there anything else you'd like readers to know about your response to these findings?
Maggi: I just would like to say that this is a very difficult topic here in southwest Pennsylvania. The oil and gas industry came in and kind of gave us a glimmer of hope and salvation after all of our ups and downs with the coal mines then steel industry. We had 35 years of decline and they gave us some hope. We did learn from our mistakes with the coal and steel industry, but we have to be aware and be continuously monitoring and learning.
It's a delicate balance—we need to have a healthy economy, but to have that we've also got to have a healthy workforce and families. In Washington County tourism is also huge, and that's why we try to be as vigilant as we can with our environment. We have people coming here to Mingo Creek, Cross Creek, and Ten Mile Creek county parks, which are three of the most beautiful parks in the country. We did use some of the funds we've gained from the oil and gas industry to put millions of dollars into those parks. We want to be vigilant to preserve that, and it's a constant struggle to balance our environment and economic growth.