Council Denies Funding For Artificial Turf At High School

Proposed options 2 and 3 for renovation of the high school track and athletic fields involves relocating the track to a north/south orientation and installing a new playing field inside the track of either natural grass (option 2) or synthetic turf (option 3). The soft ball diamond is not part of the plan. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, November 21, 2022

This meeting was held in person and over Zoom. It was recorded and can be viewed here and here

Present
Councilors in the Town Room at Town Hall: President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney Anika Lopes (District 4) , Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)

Participating on Zoom: Ellisha Walker (at large), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Michele Miller and Cathy Schoen (District 1)

Absent: Pat DeAngelis (District 2)

Staff in the Town Room: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

About 25 members of the public were present in the Town Room including many young people, and 26 on Zoom. Several members of the Regional School Committee and Finance Department were also in attendance.

Safety Of Artificial Turf Proposed Questioned
The Finance Department has proposed using $900,000 in free cash from the FY22 budget to complete Amherst’s contribution to the remodeling of the track and field at the high school, reorienting the track, increasing its size to eight lanes, as well as  installing artificial turf for the field in the center. In a tie vote, of 6-6, the council denied allocating the funds, citing the adverse environmental effects of the artificial turf.

In February, 2022, the Regional School Committee (RSC) had voted unanimously to promote the redesign of the track and field, and to use  artificial turf for the field. The council then voted to support the project with a 10-1-1 vote of the council and allocation of $800,000 of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds. The motions included a clause saying that if most of the $4.7 million needed for the project in its entirety was not raised by January 16, 2023, the regional committee  would spend $1.5 million to resurface the six-lane track only.

Since that time, however, concerns have been raised about the safety of artificial turf for athletes and the environment especially with regard to  the PFAS or “forever chemicals”, which are widely believed to be carcinogenic. At the October 17 Town Council meeting, the council requested a review by the Board of Health, but this has not yet been done. 

“Yes, the track is disgusting. Yes, we’ve let the athletes down. Yes, we have to do something. But for us to go into artificial turf at a time when the early adopters are moving away from it, for very good reasons, would be a silly and expensive mistake.”

Councilor Dorothy Pam

Council President Lynn Griesemer outlined the four options for the council at this meeting:

  1. Vote to allocate $900,000 in free cash to support the plan put forth by the RSC.
  2. Vote against the allocation (leaving it to the Hurricane Boosters (a non-profit organization that raises money and provides other forms of support for high school sports in Amherst) to raise more money by January 16, 2023 to advance the project.
  3. Postpone the vote, recognizing the January deadline.
  4. Ask the RSC to reconsider their decision and start the process anew.

Cathy Schoen (District 1) noted that  CPA funding cannot be used to pay for artificial turf. She asked if the RSC could move quickly to consider a grass field as an option, which would mean reconsidering its prior proposal and vote. Andy Steinberg (at large) expressed concern that in order to consider a grass field, the process would have to begin again and be brought before the town meetings of the other three towns, which could delay the process for a year.

Dorothy Pam (District 3) replied that the complexity of the process used an excuse to approve a controversial plan. She added, “Yes, the track is disgusting. Yes, we’ve let the athletes down. Yes, we have to do something. But for us to go into artificial turf at a time when the early adopters are moving away from it, for very good reasons, would be a silly and expensive mistake.”

Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) proposed an amendment to the funding motion that the RSC form a study group about how to “minimize” the PFAS content of the artificial fields. Pam Rooney (District 4) agreed with forming a study group if it also studies options for a grass field.

Members of the RSC and staff noted the difficulty of maintaining grass fields, especially with the heavy use they receive at the high school, stating that artificial turf fields can be used almost continually while grass fields have to “rest” between uses. Also, wet conditions at the high school mean that grass fields are often unusable, especially during the spring season, forcing teams to practice indoors and contests to be canceled or moved to other schools. Also, turf is ready to use almost as soon as it is installed. Finance Director Sean Mangano said consultants in a 2019 study of the fields at the high school said the grass fields were being used at 150% capacity, and recommended at least one turf field.

Hanneke’s amendment was defeated by a 6-6 vote with Hanneke, Shalini Bahl-Milne and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Griesemer, Anika Lopes (District 4), and Steinberg voting yes.

Public Comment
Support for artificial turf was voiced by the majority of the high school students, parents, coaches, and officials who commented. Many said that the current grass fields put Amherst student athletes at a disadvantage compared with students from schools in Western Massachusetts that have installed artificial turf fields. Several cited ankle injuries caused by uneven surfaces on the grass fields. Others noted that UMass has six turf fields and that Amherst College recently installed its third. 

Marcus Smith, a field hockey official, noted that Amherst is renowned for its fields being among the worst in the area. He added that the town and school do not put enough money into maintenance of its fields, as is done at Frontier High School, Smith Academy, and Longmeadow high school. Greenfield uses incarcerated inmates to maintain its fields, he said. He recommended a low-PFAS artificial turf. Long-time Amherst coach, teacher, and track official Liz Haygood said she was sad to have to deem the Amherst track unsuitable for competition. She said that it is not only athletes who suffer, but students who can’t use the fields for accessible physical education classes because they are being prepared for competitions.

Stephanie Hockman said the condition of the fields is putting her daughter’s desire to play Division I soccer at risk. She added that Tantasqua High School recently installed a low-PFAS artificial turf field that does not produce excessive heat (a problem of turf fields) and has a pad of recycled material and coconut husk and corn infill.

Several commenters raised concerns about the use of artificial turf. Sara Ross said she attended a conference put on by a turf manufacturer, where she learned that  “there is no such thing as artificial turf without PFAS” and that “the industry has continued to shape shift and prey on overworked parents, athletic directors, and coaches. If we choose artificial turf, we are committing to years of monitoring of compliance with whatever chemicals we deem safe. This is an obvious role for our Board of Health, whose director has already expressed her opposition to the field. Also, there are other issues with artificial turf. Evidence shows that on an 80-degree, sunny day, the temperature on the field was 139 degrees.”

Concern about PFAS contamination was also voiced by Lyons Witten, chair of the Water Supply Protection Committee, and Felicia Mednick, who noted concerns on the state and national level that are serious enough for them to  limit the use of the chemicals if avoidable. Mednick also pointed out that the artificial  fields have to be replaced regularly and are not recyclable. 

Long And Contentious Council Discussion Ensues
School Superintendent Mike Morris introduced the discussion, saying that if the Town Council decides against an artificial turf field, it should  make a commitment to maintain the grass fields, which is costly. He added that the Hurricane Boosters have made it clear that they are only interested in fundraising for a turf field.

“Amherst can have a state- of-the-art grass field that furthers the vision we have as a community to move toward reducing harm, to move toward environmental consciousness, to move toward climate action that is so necessary.” 

Councilor Michele Miller

Schoen and Pam noted that artificial turf needs maintenance with specialized equipment and can be damaged by excessive heat, metal, and even regular sneakers. Morris asserted that the Boosters are trying to raise money for an artificial turf maintenance fund as well as the installation. Michele Miller (District 1) said that Springfield College has an organic program for maintaining its grass athletic fields and that Amherst can have a state-of-the-art grass field that furthers “the vision we have as a community to move toward reducing harm, to move toward environmental consciousness, to move toward climate action that is so necessary”.

After the defeat of Hanneke’s amendment, the discussion became quite contentious. Bahl-Milne pointed out that she doesn’t eat meat, has geothermal at her home, and is not in favor of adding more plastic to the environment, but that “we can’t change everything at once, and this is only one field.” She added that the Council should accept the deliberations of the school committee. Miller noted that the Council has ignored some of the deliberations and suggestions of the Community Safety Working Group regarding racial relations in Amherst. Devlin Gauthier disagreed, saying we should accept the RSC recommendations “without question”. Hanneke said  that the RSC members are elected officials, rather than a group appointed by the Town Manager. She claimed that  “if the boosters cannot raise an additional $1.2 million by January 16, it saddles multiple generations of athletes with an east-west field position and a track that is only six lanes with a field inside that is not the right dimensions for athletic events. We would still not be able to host track championships.” She went on to say, “A no vote today says we don’t care about giving students those options [and] we’re OK  with wet fields. I can’t do that to these students.”

Ellisha Walker (at large) then voiced her frustration that the Council was being backed into a corner to make a very specific recommendation without having all the information it needed. She said she is in favor of fixing the problem of the fields, but that this controversy is pitting short-term usability against long-term environmental hazards. She noted that many towns are now removing their synthetic fields. 

Miller responded,” I’m not OK with Mandi [Hanneke] asserting that a no vote on this means that we care less or that we have not heard fully the comments that have come through tonight. That’s an unfair statement. It’s a bullying tactic, and I do not accept it, and I want to be very clear about that. That’s not how we make decisions, by bullying each other, and I see it all too often in this Council and in this community. It really hurts. And it makes decisions like this so much worse than they need to be.  I think it’s dishonest to say there are only two options [artificial turf or nothing] without seeing what it would cost to maintain natural grass fields, to have a vision where we are proactive in addressing all of our fields.”

Pam said she totally agrees with Miller and that it is not the fault of this Town Council that the students have been deprived of what they need for years. She said, added, “The motion we are given is not a good motion, and that some of us choose not to support that motion does not mean we did not listen, did not hear, are not aware of the serious problems right now. We’ve been given false choices, and I feel like there’s been great attempts to manipulate emotion. I totally agree with the superintendent that we need to make a strong commitment to the students and residents of this town for safe, viable, playable grass fields.”

Ignoring the fact that the artificial turf field would cost $1 million more than grass and that no maintenance expenses were put into the budget, Hanneke estimated that the cost of maintenance of each of the eight grass fields over 10 years would be $1.5 million each, so she calculated the total cost of grass fields over the estimated 10-year life of an artificial turf field would be $11.5 million, not including the four extra fields needed because the current fields are overused.

Ellisha Walker (at large) then voiced her frustration that the Council was being backed into a corner to make a very specific recommendation without having all the information it needed. She said she is in favor of fixing the problem of the fields, but that this controversy is pitting short-term usability against long-term environmental hazards. She noted that many towns are now removing their synthetic fields. 

At midnight, Schoen said that she could not see that anyone was going to change their vote by continuing the discussion and called the question. The Council then voted 6-6, which meant that the proposal failed and the town would not  allocate $900,000 in free cash to the project. Voting yes were Griesemer, Hanneke, Steinberg, Devlin Gauthier, Lopes, and Bahl-Milne. Voting no were Walker, Pam, Taub, Schoen, Miller, and Rooney. DeAngelis was absent.

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3 thoughts on “Council Denies Funding For Artificial Turf At High School

  1. Watershed
    Tracy K. Smith – 1972-
    https://poets.org/poem/watershed

    200 cows more than 600 hilly acres

    property would have been even larger
    had J not sold 66 acres to DuPont for
    waste from its Washington Works factory
    where J was employed
    did not want to sell
    but needed money poor health
    mysterious ailments

    Not long after the sale cattle began to act
    deranged
    footage shot on a camcorder
    grainy intercut with static
    Images jump repeat sound accelerates
    slows down
    quality of a horror movie

    the rippling shallow water the white ash
    trees shedding their leaves
    a large pipe
    discharging green water
    a skinny red cow
    hair missing back humped

    a dead black calf in snow its eye
    a brilliant chemical blue

    a calf’s bisected head
    liver heart stomachs kidneys
    gall bladder some dark some green

    cows with stringy tails malformed hooves
    lesions red receded eyes suffering slobbering
    staggering like drunks

    It don’t look like
    anything I’ve been into before

    /I began rising through the ceiling of each floor in the hospital as though I were being pulled by some force outside my own volition. I continued rising until I passed through the roof itself and found myself in the sky. I began to move much more quickly past the mountain range near the hospital and over the city. I was swept away by some unknown force, and started to move at an enormous speed. Just moving like a thunderbolt through a darkness./

    R’s taking on the case I found to be inconceivable

    It just felt like the right thing to do
    a great
    opportunity to use my background for people who
    really needed it

    R: filed a federal suit
    pulled permits
    land deeds
    a letter that mentioned
    a substance at the landfill
    PFOA
    perfluorooctanoic acid

    a soap-like agent used in
    ScotchgardTM
    TeflonTM

    PFOA: was to be incinerated or
    sent to chemical waste facilities
    not to be flushed into water or sewers

    DuPont:
    pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds
    into the Ohio River
    dumped tons of PFOA sludge
    into open unlined pits

    PFOA:
    increased the size of the liver in rats and rabbits
    (results replicated in dogs)
    caused birth defects in rats
    caused cancerous testicular pancreatic and
    liver tumors in lab animals
    possible DNA damage from exposure
    bound to plasma proteins in blood
    was found circulating through each organ
    high concentrations in the blood of factory workers
    children of pregnant employees had eye defects
    dust vented from factory chimneys settled well-beyond
    the property line
    entered the water table
    concentration in drinking water 3x international safety limit
    study of workers linked exposure with prostate cancer
    worth $1 billion in annual profit

    (It don’t look like anything I’ve been into before)

    /Every individual thing glowed with life. Bands of energy were being dispersed from a huge universal heartbeat, faster than a raging river. I found I could move as fast as I could think./

    DuPont:
    did not make this information public
    declined to disclose this finding
    considered switching to new compound that appeared less toxic
    and stayed in the body for a much shorter duration of time
    decided against it
    decided it needed to find a landfill for toxic sludge
    bought 66 acres from a low-level employee
    at the Washington Works facility

    J needed money
    had been in poor health
    a dead black calf
    its eye chemical blue
    cows slobbering
    staggering like drunks)

    /I could perceive the Earth, outer space, and humanity from a spacious and indescribable ‘God’s eye view.’ I saw a planet to my left covered with vegetation of many colors no signs of mankind or any familiar shorelines. The waters were living waters, the grass was living, the trees and the animals were more alive than on earth./

    D’s first husband had been a chemist
    When you
    worked at DuPont in this town you could have
    everything you wanted
    DuPont paid for his education
    secured him a mortgage paid a generous salary
    even gave him a free supply of PFOA

    /He explained that the planet we call Earth really has a proper name, has its own energy, is a true living being, was very strong but has been weakened considerably./

    which she used
    as soap in the family’s dishwasher

    /I could feel Earth’s desperate situation. Her aura appeared to be very strange, made me wonder if it was radioactivity. It was bleak, faded in color, and its sound was heart wrenching./

    Sometimes
    her husband came home sick—fever, nausea, diarrhea,
    vomiting—‘Teflon flu’

    an emergency hysterectomy
    a second surgery

    /I could tell the Doctor everything he did upon my arrival down to the minute details of accompanying the nurse to the basement of the hospital to get the plasma for me; everything he did while also being instructed and shown around in Heaven./

    Clients called R to say they had received diagnoses of cancer
    or that a family member had died

    W who had cancer had died of a heart attack

    Two years later W’s wife died of cancer

    They knew this stuff was harmful
    and they put it in the water anyway

    /I suspect that Earth may be a place of education./

    PFOA detected in:
    American blood banks
    blood or vital organs of:
    Atlantic salmon
    swordfish
    striped mullet
    gray seals
    common cormorants
    Alaskan polar bears
    brown pelicans
    sea turtles
    sea eagles
    California sea lions
    Laysan albatrosses on a wildlife refuge
    in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean;>

    /Viewing the myriad human faces with an indescribable, intimate, and profound love. This love was all around me, it was everywhere, but at the same time it was also me./

    We see a situation

    that has gone

    from Washington Works

    /All that was important in life was the love we felt./

    to statewide

    /All that was made, said, done, or even thought without love was undone./

    to everywhere

    it’s global

    /In my particular case, God took the form of a luminous warm water. It does not mean that a luminous warm water is God. It is just that, for me, it was experiencing the luminous warm water that I felt the most connection with the eternal./

  2. …”I feel like there’s been great attempts to manipulate emotion.”

    E.g., “He added that the Hurricane Boosters have made it clear that they are only interested in fundraising for a turf field.” What?!

  3. Just because we feared food sticking to our pots and pans, or too lazy to scrub them when we finished cooking?

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