Berkshire Community College turf field project back on track after appeals period expires

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PITTSFIELD — The artificial turf field project on the Berkshire Community College campus is poised to move forward after expiration of an appeal period for the project's environmental permits.

Michael MacDonald, acting chairman of a community group working with the college on the $2.1 million project, said the appeal period following a July decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection has lapsed.

He said the citizen group that had challenged the local and regional DEP office approvals for the turf field had until Aug. 29 to file a further appeal in Berkshire Superior Court.

"We are hoping to now move forward," MacDonald said, adding that the community group supporting the field for youth and college sports will meet next week to plan its next steps.

A leading topic, he said, will be how to raise additional money to cover a "funding gap" stemming from the cost of defending the project through the DEP appeals process. The goal, MacDonald said, is to install the all-weather athletic field in the spring.

"Obviously, we are very pleased that the appeal period has passed," said BCC President Ellen Kennedy. "We respect that there are different points of view, and we will continue to try to be good neighbors."

She added, "I can't thank Mike MacDonald enough for all the work he and the group have done."

DEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg affirmed the environmental permits in late July, adopting the recommendation of an administrative judge who presided over an environmental appeal of the permits before upholding earlier decisions by the city Conservation Commission and Western Region DEP officials.

A group of a dozen citizens had appealed the environmental permits for the turf field, which would be located near Paterson Field House, across West Street from the main BCC campus. An administrative hearing on their appeal was held in late February.

The project has been in development over the past three years by the community group in cooperation with the college. Funding was obtained from a state environmental bond issue, city funding and fundraising by the group.

MacDonald estimated in July that environmental protection refinements added in response to the comments of opponents and from DEP reviewers and other expenses had added about $60,000 to the overall cost. The project previously was put out to bid and a contractor selected, but new bids now will have to be sought.

MacDonald has said the work itself would take six to eight weeks.

Carol Zullo, one of the leaders of the opponents group, said she had wanted to continue the appeal in court with the hope of delaying the project long enough for additional information about the health effects to become known.

"Our attorney said we would have even less chance in court," she said. "The judge overwhelmingly sides with the state agency."

The additional costs for the group would be $20,000 to $25,000 range, Zullo said.

The opponents were represented during the DEP process by McGregor & Legere of Boston.

"It is devastating and too bad for the residents of Pittsfield and the state," she said. "They will have to pay to have this toxic dump disposed of."

Zullo asserted that "the tide is turning on these things," and she has hope an ongoing federal review of concerns raised about the materials in artificial fields, which is expected to produce a preliminary report by December, will help convince people the fields pose a hazard to humans and the environment.

Members of the opponents' group originally had raised the issue of the "crumb rubber" materials used as a filler around the artificial grass in turf fields, which some contend have been linked to serious health issues for players.

The DEP appeal, however, did not focus on the safety of the materials, which officials said was outside the agency's purview.

The community group planning the field contends no study has concluded the materials in the fields present a health hazard to humans.

Zullo called last month for waiting for the results of ongoing federal studies. In February, the federal Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies began a study action plan to address expressed concerns about the turf materials.

The city's Board of Health has expressed concerns about the potential health effects of crumb rubber, which is typically made from ground-up old motor vehicle tires or old sneakers, and the board has asked the community group to respond to a list of questions.

Health officials could not be reached for comment.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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