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.