It remains an embarrassment for the Island that the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Committee is suing the Oak Bluffs planning board over the board’s decision to reject a special permit that would have allowed a synthetic turf field in the town’s water protection overlay district.
To put it simply: The taxpayers of Martha’s Vineyard are paying the attorney fees for MVRHS and the taxpayers of Oak Bluffs are paying for the defense of the Oak Bluffs planning board. Once again, the only winners are the attorneys.
At issue are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are known as forever chemicals.
At one point The Times was Team Artificial Surface — understanding that we live in the Northeast, and it is difficult to have natural playing fields here because of the climate. We agreed with the explanation that natural fields don’t have enough time to rest, and thus synthetic turf would provide the Island’s athletes the best possible surface to compete and to reduce the risk of injury.
But as the proposal for the fields made its way through the permitting process, something became increasingly clear — we didn’t know what we don’t know. Science is evolving on PFAS and the potential health risks associated with the chemical compounds.
Let’s look at what’s happening elsewhere.
Boston has become the most recent city to ban artificial surfaces in the city’s parks. In a story on the ban published by the Guardian, Sarah Evans, an environmental health professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told the Guardian: “We already know there are toxic chemicals in the products, so why do we continue to utilize them, and have children roll around on them, when we have a safe alternative, which is natural grass?”
For a while, Oak Bluffs appeared poised to be one of the first communities to ban synthetic turf fields. But the proposed ban has been put on the back burner by the board of health as they await more scientific data. But you have to wonder if intimidation also played a role. One health official left office after being harassed on social media, and others have also felt the heat.
Not a shining moment for proponents of the MVRHS field project.
Beyond the potential health risks from the chemicals, which are still emerging, the fields are increasingly being called into question for other health risks. The National Football League players are putting pressure on the league to ban artificial turf because of injuries, and U.S. women’s national soccer team reached a settlement to play only on natural surfaces as part of an antidiscrimination suit.
So one of the main reasons that is given for playing on artificial surfaces has been debunked by some of the world’s greatest athletes, who say the fake fields are responsible for injuries.
All of this makes the lawsuit by MVRHS against the planning board ridiculous. The judge has given the two sides until the end of November to try to reach a settlement ahead of a Dec. 2 hearing. The school committee got a briefing on that progress behind closed doors on Monday night. While the committee is allowed to meet secretly to discuss litigation strategy under the law, it feels irresponsible not to update the public, who are paying the legal bills.
With evidence mounting against synthetic fields both environmentally and in terms of the physical health of athletes, we find it difficult to believe a judge will side with the school committee on this one, no matter what their attorneys are telling them to keep the case alive.
Proponents will point to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and their vote to approve the field, but that was hardly unanimous. That vote was so controversial that for the first time ever, the opposing commissioners briefly considered issuing a rare dissenting opinion on the field project.
Incredibly, it’s been the debate on Martha’s Vineyard that has raised awareness about PFAS in artificial turf, the lack of recycling for the old fields, and shined a spotlight on the “experts” who ignore the detriments to make the case in communities that the fields are safe, to earn a paycheck.
Nantucket pulled the plug on its field project, and other communities have also hit the pause button. But here we are fighting in court, using taxpayers’ money in a losing battle.
This is the same school committee that will soon be coming hat in hand to the six Island towns looking for support for a high school project that will be somewhere between $100 and $200 million. You’d think the committee wouldn’t want to be wasting taxpayer money on a lawsuit ahead of that conversation.
The worst part, however, is that while the fight goes on, the high school’s fields remain inadequate and poorly maintained.
Let’s pull the plug on this lawsuit, which was barely approved by a 5-4 vote, and get moving in earnest to fix the fields we have, and pay to maintain them as they always should have been maintained.