The Oak Bluffs board of health appears to be leaning toward a two-year moratorium banning synthetic turf fields in the town, but won’t take a vote until the town’s attorney, Michael Goldsmith, has a chance to fully review and tweak the language of the moratorium.
All three board members spoke in favor of the moratorium during a Zoom meeting Tuesday, saying the evidence is mounting about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, and its harmful effects shouldn’t be ignored. It’s unclear exactly how the moratorium would affect the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School field project, considering it sits in appeal limbo at the moment.
“This is something that was put together based on our concerns with PFAS,” board of health chair William White said. “[I], and I believe the other board members, felt this was a good way to go about it, based on the current information, the current scientific information, as well as the fact that the state as well as the federal government are coming out with new … regulations as we speak. It’s an ongoing thing with the PFAS.”
Board members Tom Zinno and James Butterick concurred. “I would say that what this does is allows us to gather data. There is no data on what’s coming through septic systems from PFAS,” Zinno said.
Butterick said while he knows there are other sources of PFAS, it makes little sense to add to the equation with a synthetic field. Instead, he said the town should “err on the side of caution” when it comes to PFAS. “The evidence has grown as we’ve studied this over the past six or nine months, the evidence continues to grow that PFAS is a problem,” Butterick said. “Sitting on a sole-source aquifer, we have to come down on the side of caution with this.”
Butterick also suggested sharing the proposed moratorium with the Island’s other boards of health.
The draft moratorium seeks to ban artificial fields for 36 months, but White said in a discussion with Goldsmith he felt that was too long. Should information become available that PFAS contained within the field does not jeopardize the groundwater, the health board has the ability to lift the moratorium, according to the draft read by health agent Garrett Albiston.
The draft cites a litany of reasons to proceed with caution, including PFAS being found in Oak Bluffs wells, the ongoing studies by state and federal regulators concerning PFAS, and the risk to human health from exposure to PFAS. “The scientific evidence demonstrates that the continued use and environmental presence of PFAS on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard constitutes a clear and present danger to the public health of the inhabitants of the Island,” the draft moratorium states.
In December, the health board considered draft regulations that would impose a ban on athletic fields that contain PFAS, but has since decided that an outright ban isn’t the correct way to go.
Under questioning from school board member Kris O’Brien, the board acknowledged that its focus has shifted from the outright ban included in those earlier draft regulations to a moratorium. O’Brien questioned the distinction between having the item on the board’s May 3 agenda as a “regulation” rather than a moratorium.
O’Brien also asked when health board members cite “scientific” data that they actually cite the studies they are quoting. She quizzed them on what consultants found on Nantucket, with both Zinno and Butterick countering that they are aware of Nantucket’s findings.
Nantucket abandoned its consideration of a turf field after similar pushback in the community there over concerns with PFAS contamination.
O’Brien also referred to PFAS in synthetic turf as a “scapegoat,” given that it’s ubiquitous in other household products.
Another synthetic field proponent, Joseph Sullivan, asked why the health board isn’t seeking a moratorium on septic systems — something the high school project’s former consultant, Laura Green, Ph.D. often brought into the discussion of PFAS.
Earlier in the meeting, White said the moratorium is being reviewed by Goldsmith to make sure it passes legal muster. The school board has already announced plans to appeal an Oak Bluffs planning board decision rejecting a special permit for the field project.
“If there’s any challenge to this, we want to make sure we’re on the best footing that there is,” White said.