The Oak Bluffs planning board will finally deliberate and take a vote on the special permit for a synthetic turf field and track project at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School on Wednesday, May 4.
On Thursday, the board gave school officials and their consultants an opportunity to rebut some of the testimony given during the previous hearings about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS. Those consultants made one more pitch that the testing done on the synthetic turf to be used shows no harmful effects either to the players who will use the fields or to the aquifer below. They also made the case that PFAS is so “ubiquitous” that it’s bound to show up in some way whenever testing is done on soil, but it should be the amount of PFAS that is the deciding factor on whether there is a risk.
The synthetic turf field is one of the most hotly debated issues on the Island in years, and the debate has, at times, turned ugly and vulgar at public meetings and on social media. That led Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith to, once again, publicly apologize. “You never know what events are going to transpire through these processes. We’ve learned a great deal, and certainly there has been benefit, but at the same time, folks have had to endure some very regrettable behavior,” Smith said. “Personally, I’m sorry for what all of you and others have had to endure. That is why I reiterate our sincere gratitude for the sacrifices this board has made and to the many others who put so much effort into the review of this project throughout these two-plus years.”
Planning board chair Ewell Hopkins, during previous hearings, struggled to keep the focus on the effects the project might have on the water overlay district.
The field project was approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in a split vote, leading the dissenting commissioners to draft and then pull back a dissenting opinion on the project — a first for the commission.
Proponents say the field will not cause environmental problems, will allow student athletes to better compete against their off-Island peers, and suffer fewer injuries. Opponents say too little is known about PFAS, an emerging contaminant that environmental regulators are studying because of the illnesses it can cause when it infiltrates drinking water, and that better maintained grass fields will actually reduce injuries.
No public comment was taken after school officials offered their rebuttals, led by Smith; Steven LaRosa, a hydrologist with Weston & Sampson; Marie Rudiman, a toxicologist with Weston & Sampson; and Chris Huntress, whose company is the contractor on the field project.
Huntress highlighted an opinion the planning board received from the town attorney in September 2021: “First, the board may not use Section 8.2 to deny the high school proposed use, and may not unreasonably condition the high school selection of a location of materials. Second, the board may not refuse to issue a special permit to the high school because the board would prefer the high school to construct field one in another manner, or not to construct field one with the materials the high school has chosen,” Huntress quoted. “Third, in the absence of a scientific record indicating that the infiltration of toxic substances into the surrounding soil and groundwater would occur at a greater extent than the MVC determined, it is your counsel’s judgment that, based on the limited case law to date, a reviewing court would likely find that more constringent conditions than those imposed by the MVC would be in excess of the board’s authority.”
He quoted testing done by Tetra Tech during the MVC review. “Based upon our review and the current regulatory standards for PFAS in Massachusetts, there are no significant risks associated with the discharge of PFAS from the synthetic turf field into groundwater,” Huntress said. “Given Tetra Tech’s thorough review, it is reasonable for the planning board to find that groundwater quality resulting from other onsite operations will not fall below federal and state standards. This project will result in no further deterioration of existing groundwater quality.”
In closing, Huntress, again quoting from the attorney’s letter, mentioned the conditions imposed by the MVC, which require the high school to monitor, report, and limit infiltration of microplastics into the surrounding soil and the groundwater. “I’m constrained to advise you to exercise caution in considering conditions that are more onerous than those imposed by the MVC,” Huntress said reading from the letter.
Huntress then mentioned circulating the complete application to town departments. “There are no recommendations from town departments that would prohibit the planning board from approving this special permit application as submitted,” he said.
During his presentation, LaRosa read from the Tetra Tech report that there is no evidence that PFAS is harmful to the student athletes. “From a direct-contact exposure of users out there, no significant risks from PFAS 6 can be identified from available regulatory data and standards,” he said. “Direct exposure of users out there, no significant risk from PFAS 6 can be identified from available data and regulatory data and standards.”
LaRosa also made the case that controversial consultant Laura Green has made previously on behalf of the project — that PFAS is so ubiquitous in everything that it’s bound to show up in testing. Green, who became a polarizing figure in the discussion, often testified that the Island should be more concerned about septic systems than they should be about the playing surface.
“They aren’t natural, but they are everywhere in our natural environment,” he said.
Both LaRosa and Rudiman concurred with testing done by Tetra Tech during the MVC review that described the presence of PFAS as “de minimis.”
“When we talk about risk and toxicology, the basic principle of toxicology is that the mere presence of a chemical does not equate to a health risk,” Rudiman said during her testimony. “Health risks are based on the concentration and the potential exposures and the roots of exposures, and whether or not that chemical is bioavailable.”