Synthetic turf proposal modified in the face of stiff opposition

Proponents of an ambitious makeover for the high school’s athletic fields returned with a new plan Monday night that omits the crumb-rubber infill.

From left, Superintendent of Schools Matt D'Andrea and MV@Play representatives David Wallis, Terry Donahue, and Robert "Spike" Smith, spoke about plans for a new athletic facility at the high school during a public forum last week. – Photo by Sam Moore

Last week, representatives of MV@Play, a newly formed nonprofit group, unveiled an ambitious $12 million, multiphase project to completely revamp the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) athletic fields at a packed public meeting Wednesday night in the school’s Performing Arts Center. The cornerstone of the presentation was the use of synthetic turf with a crumb-rubber infill.

Throughout the evening, parents expressed concern about the potential health risks associated with crumb rubber. Despite assurances that the product was widely used, critics were unmoved.

At a meeting of the MVRHS school committee Monday night, representatives of MV@Play returned with an alternative solution to use organic infill in place of the crumb rubber, as a base for synthetic turf. Some examples of organic infill are cork, coconut fiber, rice husk, or a blend. The group said grass will not withstand the amount of field usage, and requires significant maintenance.

MV@Play was organized by three community members and parents — David Wallis, Terry Donahue, and Robert “Spike” Smith — who identified the need for an updated and expanded high school athletic facility that could be used by students and the community. The group has been working with two representatives from Gale Associates, an engineering and consulting firm that specializes in athletic facility planning and design.

The first phase of the three-phase plan is to remove the existing track, which they said is in such poor shape that it will no longer be certified for use, and install a new track and field facility with a turf infield to provide for multi-sport use. The estimated cost is $3,500,000.

Monday, Mr. Wallis told the school committee the three had heard the community’s concerns at the public forum about the material of the field “loud and clear.”

“There is an organic infill to the synthetic turf that is a reasonable cost,” Mr. Wallis said. “It has been very, very well received, and it is an area that we are going to be exploring with Gale Associates.”

High school athletic director Mark McCarthy said Monday that a grass field could not withstand heavy usage. He said new sod that was put down on the track infield five years ago deteriorated in one to two years, and only with game usage.

“We need to not only play games but practice, and then when we bring the community up here, we need to have surfaces that can handle it,” he said. “MV@Play is doing a great job of trying to find what is the best surface that we can have that is not grass, because grass will not hold up with the amount of usage that we want to bring up here.”

He said choosing the right infill material is an appropriate step. “Let’s find the infill that we can use that everybody will be happy with,” he said. “If you do that now — put in grass — you’re really wasting your money.”

He added that he doesn’t have the manpower to provide maintenance on grass fields. “I’m doing it with one person that gives me about 20 hours,” he said. “We see that there is a need, and we need to address that need now.”

The school committee agreed to hold another public meeting on Monday, May 16, at 7 pm in the Performing Arts Center to discuss the new proposal and any surrounding issues.

Not ‘either-or’

In the PAC Wednesday night, MV@Play presented its vision for the first phase of the centralized community athletic facility. A full crowd showed up, and discussion largely focused on the use of grass versus a synthetic turf with crumb-rubber infill.

“We are you,” Mr. Wallis said Wednesday. “We are parents. We are fathers. We have kids in the school system, and I think we have also been community-wise and athletically-wise involved on the Island.”

The entire scope of the project would include a new track and field facility with turf infield, a new regulation baseball field, three new soccer fields, two new regulation softball fields, a varsity-game football field, a new volleyball court, a sports medicine trainers’ facility, locker rooms, public bathrooms, storage and maintenance building, and a parking and infrastructure redesign. Currently, the total estimated cost is $12 million, and the group hopes to finance the project entirely by private funding.

Phase one of the proposed plan includes widening the radius of the track to 120 feet to allow for a 210-foot infield, adding stadium seating for 500 people, installing field lighting, and creating track equipment and facilities, such as long and triple jump pits, a pole vault box and cover, and a discus and shot put ring and cage.

The infield would be mainly for use by the women’s lacrosse and field hockey teams. Wednesday, MV@Play and Gale Associates presented a plan to create a turf infield with a crumb-rubber and sand infill, to withstand weather and high traffic and cut down on maintenance costs.

“We don’t want to put anything out there that is going to harm our children, but what we do want to put out there is something that can sustain the amount of traffic that we’re going to get,” Mr. Wallis said. “I think that traffic is really good traffic. It’s not only the high school, it’s all the kids out there … and all the adults, and the tournaments, and the camps; everything that’s going on. It’s very hard to see natural grass being able to handle what it is that we’re asking it to do.”

Some attendees cited health risks associated with the rubber infill material used in turf fields.

“It seems slightly naive to me to think that we would chop up a tire into small pieces, roll around in it, and not have the health consequences that comes with that,” Elissa Turnbull said. “A tire is a tire, and it’s made out of the things it’s made out of, whether it’s in small pieces or big pieces … I just have really big reservations about using that material on the fields.”

Dr. Jeffrey Zack, emergency department director at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, spoke from what he said was a “third-person scientific view.” He said the literature on the toxicity standards of synthetic turf fields is sparse.

“A lot of people have gone and done sampling of the air and the ground … and what they did find, and what the EPA would tell you is, Yes, these levels are below kind of these toxicity standards,” he said, adding that there was no way to do a randomized control study on the link between the material and health issues such as cancer.

But, he said, “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

“As a dad I would say, I would rather my kids play on grass,” he said.

Lisa Knight, a teacher and field hockey coach, pointed out that the athletes who travel off-Island for competitions are often playing on turf fields.

“When your kids go off-Island and play sports, do you know what they’re playing on?” she said. “Turf. Fifty percent of our field hockey games are played here on our fields, on grass, but 50 percent [are on turf] plus when you make tournament — and you’ll never make tournament if you don’t have turf — because every game is played on turf.”

High school senior and athlete Lee Hayman was one of many student-athlete representatives in the room.

“We played a game two weeks ago, and four girls went down in two minutes and we had to call our game, because we had a grass field and it was literally a mud puddle,” she said. “It’s become a matter of safety. It’s become a matter of school spirit. When schools come over here, it’s just not the same as us going over to their school … I would ask everyone to keep in mind the high school student’s perspective.”

At the last minute, parent Ina Andre offered up a compromise — using an alternative material to crumb rubber for the turf field.

“There are materials out there that can be used, and we can do this,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be an either/or.”