Precautionary Principle for turf discussion

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To the Editor:

While The MV Times March 16 editorial “Turf wars” leads with a thoughtful summary of the debate, the logic used to justify the paper’s continued support of synthetic turf falls short.

The Times describes the current fields as “unredeemable.” Where did this assessment come from? Given that no experienced grass experts have been hired to assess the fields, it is profoundly irresponsible to draw a conclusion based on the recommendation of Gale Associates, one of the country’s largest purveyors of synthetic turf.

The Times argues that an all-grass solution could not meet the demand. What exactly is the demand? It’s clear from public documents, presentations, and even Superintendent Matt D’Andrea’s comments to The Times that despite recent statements to the contrary, MV@Play and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High Shchool intend to centralize youth and adult sports at the high school campus. This would more than double the amount of use for those fields, with no organized use of the Island’s five other playing fields. Is this a wise use of resources? Is a centralized campus the best decision, planning-wise? These questions shouldn’t be skirted; they should be evaluated head-on in the context of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s recent Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road Corridor Study, and incorporate feedback from parents of young athletes and others who would be directly impacted.

The Times asserts there is “a significant body of evidence which supports synthetic turf’s safety.” Where exactly is that evidence? Is it provided by the likes of hired white coat Michael Peterson, from the infamous Gradient consulting firm, whose letter to the editor The Times saw fit to print last year (May 11, “Consider the science”)? The Times argues that school committee members and the superintendent are entrusted with judging the safety of synthetic fields. While they are no doubt qualified for many things, school officials have no authority to offer health or environmental assurances, particularly regarding products that — according to a Times article published last week — still have not been chosen.

Rather than jumping to conclusions, it would be prudent to follow an approach to decision-making developed by scientists, lawyers, philosophers, policy makers, and environmentalists across the globe, who recognized that existing regulations have failed to adequately protect human health and the environment. In the 1998 Wingspread Conference, they created the Precautionary Principle, which states:

“Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, bears the burden of proof. The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic, and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.”

What would the Precautionary Principle look like here?

Open: MV@Play and MVRHS address their long-term vision and state exactly what products they are proposing.

Informed: MV@Play and MVRHS submit the corresponding specifics on usage, costs, fees, operating expenses, and materials — including all environmental and health-impact studies — prior to the MVC’s public hearing.

Democratic: All stakeholders, including town boards, taxpayers, parents of athletes of all ages, environmental organizations, health professionals, etc. speak to their concerns.

An examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action: As a starting point, Vineyarders for Grass Fields has hired a leading grass expert to assess all of the Island’s playing fields next month; we will share his feedback, including projected costs, widely.

Thankfully, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s development of regional impact (DRI) process aligns perfectly. Assuming we all do our parts, the commissioners, buttressed by MVC staff expertise, will be well-equipped to lead this important conversation. And that is what will strengthen our chances of having truly safe and adequate fields.

Rebekah Thomson
Vineyarders for Grass Fields