Some 50 people were in attendance for an Oak Bluffs board of health discussion on a proposed moratorium on the construction of synthetic turf fields in Oak Bluffs that contain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — a class of chemicals known as PFAS that can lead to health concerns.
While there was support, most in attendance took the opportunity to poke holes in the board’s proposal; many also voiced support for a proposed synthetic turf field at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Opponents of the moratorium say that the science has already been vetted surrounding possible chemicals seeping into the groundwater at the high school athletic field, and that the natural grass fields currently in use are already contaminated with PFAS.
The health board, after hearing from the public on Tuesday, took no action on the proposal, and will take the issue up at a later date.
The proposal follows a court battle between the Oak Bluffs planning board and MVRHS School Committee, which a judge issued a final ruling on last week, favoring the school.
Board members said at the meeting that they would be open to the construction of fields that wouldn’t be adding PFAS to the groundwater, whether that was new technology that didn’t include the contaminants in its materials, or if there was the addition of a stormwater collection or filter system that would keep PFAS out of the aquifer.
Board member Tom Zinno said they were taking a look at the bigger picture — not just the high school turf field — considering that the science has evolved around PFAS, which has raised more concerns for public health. He noted that wells around the Island have become contaminated with PFAS, including a public well in Oak Bluffs near Lagoon Pond.
“We’re looking at what is good for the whole Island,” Zinno said. “Oak Bluffs is on the verge of a water crisis.”
Louis Pacillo, a member of the MVRHS School Committee, questioned if the board was considering a moratorium on any synthetic field in Oak Bluffs, or just the proposed athletic facility at the high school. He was concerned that there would be delays to improving outdoor tennis and basketball courts.
The response from the board was that any synthetic turf playing surface would be subject to the moratorium, but Zinno said that wouldn’t stop engineers from designing a system to treat water, possibly a catch basin of some kind, that would prevent PFAS from getting into the groundwater. He noted that a golf course in Oak Bluffs designed a system that would catch excess fertilizer and nitrogen before it got into groundwater, which the golf course could then reuse.
He also said that he supported better athletic fields at the school. “There’s money out there to do it, but we need to do it safely,” Zinno said.
MVRHS School Committee member Kris O’Brien also questioned the board’s proposal. She said that without a turf field, the schools would have to build two new fields. Existing fields are used too frequently to meet the demand, which leaves them in rough shape. New grass fields would require clearing acres of forest, and the use of hundreds of pounds of fertilizer and nitrogen, she said, adding that a synthetic field could handle the demand.
O’Brien also questioned the logic of not allowing a synthetic field when the existing grass field at the high school already has PFAS. She referred to a study by Weston and Sampson that found detectable levels of the contaminants at the Oak Bluffs School and high school, reported earlier this year. She also quoted studies from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission when the commissioners approved the high school project in 2021.
“You do have the data, so I’m confused about what you are searching for?” she said.
Oak Bluffs health agent Garrett Albiston responded that they are aware of the studies. Part of the rationale for the moratorium was to encourage an alternative field that doesn’t have PFAS. O’Brien questioned if there was in fact an alternative, if the schools’ fields already have PFAS. Albinson responded that grass is natural, doesn’t contain PFAS, and would not be adding additional PFAS to the watershed.
High school athletic director Mark McCarthy also questioned if the board was considering the studies that have already been done. He said that one study found that it would have to be raining “Drano” from the skies for the proposed synthetic turf field to release PFAS into the groundwater.
Landscape architect Chris Huntress, of Huntress Associates, said that there is currently no system that would be able to treat stormwater coming off a turf field and completely remove PFAS.
Huntress said that the topsoil at the high school currently has “10 to 12 times” more PFAS than the turf field would. He said that the proposal pitched for the field would include removing that layer of topsoil, which would be taken out of the town’s aquifer.
Huntress also said that the turf technology is improving, and some companies are creating fields without PFAS. The board said they were open to such a field.
Others at the meeting, like MVRHS School Committee member Michael Watts, questioned why the board was so concerned about synthetic fields when so many other products around Oak Bluffs released PFAS into the groundwater, like septic systems. The response from the board was that a ban on everything containing PFAS would be nearly impossible. The board was focused on a field that would be built directly over the Island’s sole-source aquifer.
There was also support for the moratorium.
Mary Jane Williams with the Dukes County Health Council applauded the town’s board of health for considering the moratorium. She said that once PFAS from the field gets into the aquifer, it’s impossible to get it out. She also said that there are more injuries associated with synthetic fields compared with grass.
Oak Bluffs resident Susan Desmarais was also supportive, saying that the science around PFAS continues to evolve to show how dangerous the chemicals are. She complimented the board for being proactive and keeping synthetic fields out of Oak Bluffs, before they become a problem.
Board members said they would take the issue up at a future meeting.