Health officials seek to broaden PFAS inquiry

Health board seeks assistance on contaminant from MVC.

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Joe Sullivan, owner's project manager for the high school track and field project, said it was unwise to talk about Tetra Tech data without a representative from Tetra Tech present.

Oak Bluffs health officials have concluded the scope of their investigation into per- and poly-fluoralkyl substances (PFAS) needs to broaden. On Tuesday, the town’s board of health held its second hearing on a proposed regulation to prohibit PFAS-containing artificial turf. Several people questioned why the board focused on artificial turf alone when there are many other potential sources of PFAS in the environment. Such questions about the narrowness of the board’s inquiry stimulated a decision to consult with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) on PFAS in relation to Oak Bluffs drinking water and the sole-source aquifer that provides it. 

The board also deemed it prudent to reach out to other Island boards of health on the subject of PFAS contamination. Landscape architect Chris Huntress and Kyla Bennett, director of science policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), appeared before the board and continued to have differences over the interpretation of test results — in particular the importance of “J-qualified” or “J-flagged” test results found in Tetra Tech testing previously commissioned by the MVC. Tetra Tech consultant Ron Myrick was anticipated to be at the meeting to help clarify those test results, but he wasn’t present. There was a disagreement between health agent Meegan Lancaster and high school committee member Kris O’Brien as to why he wasn’t there. It was pointed out Myrick consulted for the MVC and not the school committee. Health board member Tom Zinno said Myrick needs to come before the board as soon as possible. 

Joe Sullivan, owners’ project manager for the high school field project, said it was unwise to debate Tetra Tech data when “they’re not here to actually speak on it.”

Overall, O’Brien took the position that the school committee was disinclined to weigh in on the regulatory deliberations of the health board. A letter read into the record from Amy Houghton, chair of the high school committee, recommended the health board secure “third-party experts” for advice, and further stated the school committee “believes it is inappropriate to bring advocates for our project to a meeting intended to discuss town regulations.” Former Oak Bluffs select board member Walter Vail said he felt the proposed regulations were “aimed right at” the synthetic field project.

“Why would you not bring forward a regulation that says anything that generates PFAS in the town, and that really goes to septic systems, and anything else that might impact our aquifer — why would you not do that instead of just going right at the field?” Vail asked. “It looks to me like there’s an effort to stop the artificial turf and not stop PFAS in this town.”

Vail said to the best of his understanding, the proposed synthetic field won’t generate much PFAS, maybe a “de minimis” amount. 

“I’m a proponent of this project,” finance committee member Maura McGroarty said. “I hate seeing it being politicized, which I think it has been, which pulls it away from the health aspect of it.” McGroarty said potential PFAS from the synthetic field project was small, and taken out of proportion in comparison with the prevalence of PFAS elsewhere. 

“I hate seeing this project being held up by what I think are more political than health arguments,” McGroarty said. She went on to say she hoped the town board took a broader look at PFAS and coordinated with other Island boards of health. Without such coordination, she said, the Oak Bluffs board would be “barking into a vacuum.”

Joe Mikos, president of the Vineyard Varsity Club, said he saw evidence that the proposed regulations targeted the synthetic field project, because they don’t highlight any other sources of PFAS in Oak Bluffs. Echoing a letter from Tisbury resident John Zarba, a letter that was previously read into the record, Mikos asked, “How can you let us drink the water in Oak Bluffs that has PFAS in it, and yet you’re looking to target this field?” Mikos expressed skepticism about experts who previously spoke against the field, asked who was paying them, and suggested they may not have provided independent opinions.

Bennett said she was present voluntarily. 

PFAS investigator Kristen Mello denied being compensated for her appearances, as did Bennett. Mello said she was participating to help make sure the Vineyard doesn’t end up with the magnitude of PFAS contamination her home city of Westfield has.

Mello also said she expected PFAS in her body to end up “killing” her.

Health board chair William White said several times that politics wasn’t influencing the board. White said he and the board have approached the subject in a “fair and equitable” manner. He noted the PFAS landscape is fast-moving, and therefore the scope of inquiry by the board may expand as it learns more. White said he had served on the board for many, many years, and was unswayed by the heated politics that arose when smoking regulations were taken up by the board. Similarly, he said, he has no skin in the game as far as the artificial turf goes, except in regard to public health. 

“It’s my responsibility, and everybody else on this board’s responsibility,” White said, “to look at that with a thorough eye, and I’m taking the politics out of it — don’t care.”

Health board member Dr. James Butterick acknowledged PFAS is a relatively new subject for the board. “One of the things that I think struck me early on is realizing we have PFAS in our water system right now — why would we want to knowingly add more to it?” he said. “And yes, it’s going to mean more than the turf field. We’re going to have to go back and [look] at other sources of PFAS, not just in Oak Bluffs but on the whole Island, if we’re going to preserve our water supply.”

Zinno said prior testimony from toxicologist Laura Green “opened my eyes” to PFAS coming from septic tanks. He added that firefighting foams have been used on the Vineyard, and that many plastics have the potential to leach PFAS. 

Zinno said he realized, “It’s a broader brush that we need to utilize to be able to deal with PFAS,” and made a pitch to solicit the MVC. “We may want to get the Martha’s Vineyard Commission involved with their staff, because it’s a big, big, issue.”

Lancaster also tipped her hat to Green for providing information on PFAS contamination from septic tanks. She added the pace of regulation is moving quickly. “I think, given the pace in which science is catching up to being able to specifically identify PFAS analytes, we’re going to see a really big change,” Lancaster said. “I mean, don’t forget the [Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection] didn’t even put out the regulatory standards for drinking water until Oct. 2, 2020. So, it’s a really rapidly moving landscape …” Lancaster told the board to expect further PFAS restriction from all levels of government. She saw merit in working with the MVC and other boards of health, describing the idea as “prudent.”

The board authorized Lancaster to draft a letter to the MVC to seek help and guidance on PFAS in relation to water. The authorization didn’t involve a vote. 

13 COMMENTS

  1. We have a choice !
    Grass is an available , renewable , part of an existing eco system , non toxic with the right management and also the CHOICE of many school communities . To be clear. We all know our children are our future and need investments. BUT this does not quantify a plastic turf . It’s is not the fault of MVRHS that our planet has a 10 year “ window of opportunity “, to turn the tide on so many environmental problems for all those who live on earth .These problems are scientifically proven to be caused by human activity . This beautiful Island IS Wampanoag Land. We caucasians landed here, renamed it and did what ever we wanted. My own parents came here and enjoyed this “less evolved ” lifestyle. This lifestyle may not sit well with folks who have moved here from more progressive places. Consider looking back to the towns where you were born. Can you drink the water from the tap? Is there an enviromental crisis happening there?
    It’s is the hope that our school leaders will use best practices to signal that they are aware of this scientific data . Many of the MVRHS graduates I know are passionate about environmental science because they know our planet is in peril .
    This is not about the current 50, 60 and 70 year olds that have engaged in this dispute and it’s not about a single plastic turf . It’s about the culture of Plastic and what it is doing to our health. This is about our grandchildrens future . Every single action has a reaction.
    Some folks call this “ cancel culture”, INDEED we need to cancel as many actions as we can to give out planet a break!! Please open your minds and hearts. We are all in this together . Now more than ever we need to come together to support our children, our schools , our coaches and volunteers and our enviromental future . At the same time…Lets make a plan to have a amazing sports facility. Fundraising and donor transparency could be happening now with a Plan B. Yes! our kids absolutly deserves a top notch , enviromentally safe sports area!
    Thank you for reading

    • I’ve said this once, and I will say it as many times as I need to, there is no viable alternative to the synthetic track surface we currently have!!! Grass fields work, we have them and our athletes compete on them with little injury, but the track is a whole different story that is being ignored. Please consider ALL of the consequences of banning these PFAS materials. How much will banning these really do compared to other forms of pollution we could ban when in making these decisions we are destroying our entire track and field program!

    • Beka
      If grass works why is the Field Fund repairing areas on the West Tisbury middle school field with sod? If the grass can’t handle the usage of middle schiool children how will in deal wit the high school.

  2. So no one in support of putting a turf field in for MULTIPLE years use or recycled if that’s the word we must hear brings trash to the dump ? Has a pick up service from a trash truck with emissions pouring out everyday or they “recycle”? No one drives a car here who’s opposed to turf fields? No one uses gas to cook or heat their homes and burns emissions out everyday?
    Oh and that cellphone your using as a touch screen? You can thank PFAS for that. Those solar panels we want to save the planet? Need PFA to be made. Happy you don’t get gas all over you when you pump gas? You can thank PFAS for that. PFAS MAKE UP LESS THEN 2% of the UNITED STATES drinking water supply.
    Wake up everyone and stop making excuses and get with the times and allow the kids the opportunities that other kids get off island. Don’t let the kids have to go off island make them want to stay and work on the island and be proud to say they play sports on the Vineyard again. Just be better and do your jobs.

  3. I’ve said this once, and I will say it as many times as I need to, there is no viable alternative to the synthetic track surface we currently have!!! Grass fields work, we have them and our athletes compete on them with little injury, but the track is a whole different story that is being ignored. Please consider ALL of the consequences of banning these PFAS materials. How much will banning these really do compared to other forms of pollution we could ban when in making these decisions we are destroying our entire track and field program!

  4. Dear Zach,
    You and your fellow student-athletes are The Most Important Stakeholders in this “debate.” You are the ones who should, in a fair process, have your voices heard and your ideas implemented. Instead, the, um, “adults” have done nothing but bicker, cast aspersions on others’ intentions, and utterly fail to do what needs to be done. For seven years! Shame on them. They should pass the baton to people like you.

    • Adults have to fund, install, and maintain whatever is chosen. They also have to make the most responsible environmental choice available based on varying expert opinions. That has proven to be complicated enough. Students are not experts. Their wants should not be the deciding factor in a longterm project — one that will still be around for years after the current group of kids has moved on.

  5. Absolutely Zach! Let talk about mediation and compromise about the track that supports our amazing island runners .
    Civil , earnest compromise and mediation with our goverment and school . Let’s get this done ASAP .

    • What needs mediation? You mean mediation only if you get what you want. Please don’t argue out both sides of your mouth. It is really unbecoming to try the mediation pathway. How is a composite track ever ok in your argument?

    • Do I read this comment correctly? Mediation between the school committee and whom? Do you or the field fund know something that nobody else does? Are you in control of the board of health or planning board? Those boards are supposed to be independent and fair when reviewing an application. Does seem something is amiss in the background if you think mediation is on the table.

      • Dear Baker ,
        Relax. I am not affiliated or speaking for anyone EXCEPT MYSELF. I am a citizens of this Nation , this Island , a taxpayer , a taxpayer and a consumer of the drinking water . Please read my writing at the top . Plastic pollution is global problem and there are innovative solutions to
        “mediate “ or solve theses issues .
        Also known as Progress , not paranoia.

        • Do you mean the monitoring wells and micron collection materials that are proposed for the project? Are those satisfactory risk mitigation tools?

  6. Steve–Zach and others ARE having their voices heard in a fair process. That does not mean their ideas should be implemented.
    Zach is an intelligent and articulate young man. He will get that baton soon enough.

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