Proposed synthetic turf prompts concerns about more PFAS in Bennington

Proposed synthetic turf prompts concerns about more PFAS in Bennington
The Spinelli Complex at Mount Anthony Union High School. Courtesy photo

Mount Anthony Union High School’s main athletic field is in rough shape. Conditions at the Bennington school have been so bad that sports teams cannot use it to practice and use it only for games during the fall season. 

In recent years, that’s prompted the school’s activities director, Ashley Hoyt, to look into the school’s options. On Nov. 2, residents in the school district will vote on whether to spend $3.5 million to upgrade the Spinelli Complex, which includes an upgraded multiuse building, track and, according to a conceptual plan by the engineers, an 82,500-square-foot synthetic turf field. 

While many agree the current field does not work for athletes and coaches, some are raising concerns that synthetic turf could contain the toxic chemical group PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are known to cause an array of harmful health effects, including cancer, when ingested. 

Widespread PFAS contamination in Bennington from the former Teflon coating business ChemFab, owned by Saint Gobain, continues to affect residents, including having a major impact on drinking water. 

In a report sent to school administrators, the manufacturers of the synthetic turf field and track assured MSK Engineering and Goldstone Architecture, who are working on the project, that the materials do not contain the emerging class of toxic “forever chemicals,” and advocates for the field point to existing turf fields elsewhere in Vermont. 

But those who oppose the artificial turf project — including state legislators, a former official with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Vermont Conservation Voters — say the risks outweigh the benefits. 

They’ve expressed concerns about the most common tests for PFAS in turf, which may not identify the full scope of the chemical class. Jon Groveman, policy and water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, has reviewed the manufacturer’s tests and does not think they’re conclusive. 

The report includes only several dozen chemicals within the PFAS class, but Groveman said there are thousands of others that are not yet regulated. 

“There is, to our understanding, a way to actually do further analysis and certify that there really isn’t any of the thousands of PFAS in the product,” he said. “But that hasn’t been done.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Scott signed Act 36, which bans certain products containing PFAS — such as firefighting foam, food packaging, carpets and ski wax — from being sold in the state. On Monday, federal officials with the Environmental Protection Agency made forward movement on efforts to limit the chemical class in consumer products, The New York Times reported

“If it’s present, then Bennington is going to have issues,” said Lauren Hierl, executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters. “Any community choosing to look at this could end up inadvertently bringing PFAS into their community and then having to deal with the potential health and environmental risks that come along with that.”

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who sponsored Act 36, said legislators need to continue to probe the issue.

“If you look at what the state has done already, we are moving in the direction, more and more and more, of working to keep PFASes out of our environment,” he said. “So as much as we can do, I think we’ll continue to do that.”

Tim Holbrook, chair of the Mount Anthony Union School District, said synthetic turf has become a popular choice for schools in recent years. 

“It isn’t something that we’re inventing,” he said. “There are four or five different high schools in Vermont that have them, and as far as we know, no one’s ever had a problem with them at all.”

The Mount Anthony Union School District Board is scheduled to hear a range of opinions on the matter Wednesday night at its regularly scheduled meeting and plans to hold an additional informational meeting later this month for members of the public. 

Big dirt patch

Andrew Gilbert, a senior at Mount Anthony who plays football and lacrosse, hopes to see a new Spinelli Complex where more teams can play and practice. 

“When you’re in middle school and coming up through elementary school playing sports, especially football, Friday nights on Spinelli — you don’t beat that atmosphere,” he said. 

The soccer and football teams play games on the field, but all practices and all other sports are relegated to other fields to avoid wear and tear that is already causing uneven terrain. Hoyt, the athletic director, said she’s seen that terrain cause injuries. 

“After football and soccer season, the field is totally chewed up,” Hoyt said. “If you were to walk our field, right now, the whole center is just a big dirt patch. There’s uneven surfaces. We don’t even honestly have grass on it at this point.”

Other fields — where practices take place and other sports play — don’t have abundant spectator seating, are not wheelchair-accessible and often flood, she said. 

A fact sheet, published alongside a number of other documents related to the project on the board’s website, said artificial turf has become more popular because it’s free of fertilizer and pesticides, it reduces water and maintenance costs, and it increases the amount of possible playing time on the field. It also says that the fields “result in fewer injuries because of the improved and level playing surface,” but studies have shown that synthetic turf can cause higher rates of lower-extremity injuries

In February 2020, the school board convened an ad hoc committee, which included coaches, administrators, board members and community members, to review the options for upgrading the turf field. Hoyt said they looked at natural turf, but even what she calls the “Cadillac” of grass fields wouldn’t have enough playability and durability. 

“The field would still need tons of upkeep and maintenance,” she said. “We’d still be painting the field multiple times a week. That just wasn’t something that we wanted.”

The committee voted unanimously to recommend an artificial turf in March 2021. In September, MSK Architects and Goldstone Architecture presented a feasibility study to the board. The vote is scheduled for Nov. 2. 

“The board has been very, very clear that they do not want to have a field that has the potential to harm anybody,” Holbrook said. “That certainly is paramount.”

Environmental concerns

Environmentalists have raised a list of concerns about the proposed field that range from microplastics pollution to the temperature of turf fields and the risk of PFAS contamination. PFAS has been identified in various types of turf across the country. 

Scientists with the Children’s Environmental Health Center of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have raised concerns about children’s exposure to recycled rubber, which is often included in turf.

“Everything that we’ve learned from working on these issues with a coalition of people throughout the country is that these risks are not worth taking,” Groveman said. “The more we learn about these chemicals, the more dangerous we find out they are.”

Hierl, with Vermont Conservation Voters, said she’s concerned about disposing of the synthetic material when the turf’s lifespan is over — school board documents say the turf would likely last around 15 years with proper maintenance. 

Hierl serves on the Montpelier City Council, where the wastewater treatment facility is accepting landfill leachate from Coventry. Discharge from Montpelier’s facility already has high readings of PFAS

“It creates these ripple effect problems downstream,” she said. “For us, it’s trying to assess, what are the costs and benefits and the risks that you’re taking on and would want any community to have their eyes wide open.”

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, said both the Legislature’s Health and Welfare Committee and the Natural Resources Committee and Energy Committee, which he chairs, have been working to reduce the presence of toxic chemicals in the state — and particularly at schools. Burlington High School had to relocate after PCBs were found at the campus, he said. 

“I’m thinking about prudence and liability,” Bray said. “I just would want to be very careful about bringing anything potentially toxic into the state, period, and most specifically to a school. And then Bennington itself has a very sensitive history on PFAS.”

‘It’s just ironic’

Judith Enck, who was a regional administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration and is now a senior fellow at Bennington College, said she recommends against synthetic turf, which she described as a “plastic shag carpet.” 

She’s concerned about PFAS, she said, but she also has other concerns. Synthetic turf also creates hotter surfaces and contributes to microplastic pollution. She believes plastic turf fields should be banned in the state.

“It’s just ironic that a community that’s been so negatively impacted by toxic chemicals in drinking water would even consider putting this type of material on playing fields for children,” she said. 

Town officials have asked whether PFAS entering the environment could impact Saint Gobain’s responsibility to clean up existing pollution in Bennington. Peter Walke, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the situation likely wouldn’t affect an existing settlement between the company and the state.

If there were a PFAS release from the school, Walke said, and it affected wells included in the settlement, Saint Gobain could request that the school help pay for the cleanup. 

“We don’t see that as likely,” he said. “The school is in an area where water lines either already existed or will be extended to cover the impacted wells from the PFAS contamination, so we don’t anticipate that being a significant issue.”

Campion wonders who would hold responsibility for cleaning up potential pollution — a cost he said should not fall to taxpayers. 

“I think we all really believe kids deserve a great space to play on and to explore athletics,” Campion said. “But it has to be safe. It absolutely has to be safe for kids, and it absolutely has to be safe for the environment today and going forward.”

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