Turf war at Mount Greylock Regional: Natural or artificial athletic field?

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WILLIAMSTOWN — With bids about to come in for a $2 million artificial turf playing field at Mount Greylock Regional School, debate continues over its usefulness, cost, and possible health and environmental effects.

Elsewhere in Berkshire County, the same debate has played out in the courts over an artificial turf field at Berkshire Community College; ultimately, the field was installed last year after a seven-year undertaking.

In Williamstown, the School Committee already had authorized a request for proposals for a new artificial turf field at Mount Greylock Regional School when opposition started to mount.

Now, there is a chorus of opposition, which is requesting that the School Committee also look into the cost of installing an organically grown turf field, which they say will perform as well as artificial turf if properly maintained, and possibly for less money.

Both sides have scientific reports to quote from and cost estimates that claim their field is cheaper over the long run; each also claims the other is using false information.

Synthetic turf fields have been in use since 1966, when one was installed in the then-brand new Houston Astrodome. Today, there are more than 12,000 artificial turf fields in use at arenas, stadiums, colleges and high schools in the U.S., and more than 1,000 new ones installed every year.

Supporters of the plan say that heavier rains and more use by sanctioned teams have resulted in field damage that renders existing turf unusable at times in the late fall and early spring, forcing teams to scramble to find alternative locations for practice and games.

For the artificial turf

"That field just doesn't stand up," said Adam Filson, father of two sons who play lacrosse. "And with four teams using that field, it just takes a beating."

Often, they wind up playing on an artificial turf field at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts or Williams College, when field time is available. And the players have to find their own way to the new locations, putting an additional burden on the young athletes' families to find last-minute rides.

Filson said an artificial turf field would be available through much of the spring mud season, whereas a natural grass field might not.

"Durability of the (artificial) turf is key," he said.

Dr. Erwin "Win" Stuebner Jr., a retired local physician, also supports the plan for an artificial turf field. He said that, while it is well-established that there are toxins in the reprocessed tires used in fake turf, there has been no study that has established a cause for health concerns about its use.

And the concern about increased risk of injury to users on the artificial field has not been borne out either, he said.

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"No one is denying there are toxins in the crumb rubber (shredded recycled tires)," Stuebner said. "But no one has found any sign of risk to the players. And millions of kids have played on (artificial) turf fields for years."

Against the faux grass

While there have been no definitive safety risks found, they haven't been effectively ruled out either, say opponents.

And environmentally, the artificial turf field might be a step in the wrong direction, said Stephanie Boyd, who opposes the use of artificial turf.

For example, the crumb rubber — which is composed of BB-sized particles of shredded old tires, is routinely expelled from beneath the field surface. Opponents worry that, without proper measures, the particles can be blown or washed away from the field into the stormwater drainage system or inhaled by athletes. Having crumb rubber washing into the Green River, for example, could be problematic, Boyd said.

When it comes time to replace a fake turf after about 10 years, about 100,000 pounds of that material — the plastic turf and the crumb rubber — winds up in a landfill or disposed of as toxic material, Boyd said. A replacement sheet of plastic turf will have to be manufactured and deployed, while the old 100-yard piece of synthetic grass carpet will wind up in the waste stream along with all the tiny bits of old tire.

The additional cost of replacement brings up the debated issue of cost discrepancy. A landscape consultant hired by the district to propose a plan for the playing field estimated the cost of installation and maintenance over 25 years to be $1.7 million. But artificial turf opponent Bridget Spann said the consultant might not have taken into account the replacement costs, and that no one has provided a cost estimate for installing an organic turf field.

Savings purported

Spann did some research and estimated that over 25 years, a synthetic turf field would cost about $2.3 million for installation, maintenance and replacement. An organic natural turf field would cost about $1.35 million for installation and maintenance, for a savings of about $900,000.

"Using an organic natural turf field will help preserve the climate for the younger generation, and they (organic fields) are better at withstanding heavy weather," Spann said.

While one selling point for the artificial turf is that it required less maintenance, the rest of the athletic fields at the school will be natural turf that will still have to be maintained, so the cost of maintaining the fields at Mount Greylock will still be part of the budge, she noted.

And the notion is to have physical education classes on the artificial turf field, but as Boyd pointed out, what if parents don't wish their children to be exposed to those materials?

Filson said it comes down to one simple point for him: "I want my kids to be able to play (sports). And right now, they are not able to play when the field is wet."

Bids for artificial turf field installation are due Sept. 20. The next meeting of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee after the bids have been opened is Sept. 26.

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.


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