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Turnout favors turf on high school field

As school administrators and community members debated the toxicity, cost and safety of a proposed artificial turf field, students said they just need a year-round place to play, even if that means rolling out plastic.

“Yeah, grass is natural and we’d all rather play on it, but here in the Northwest we can’t play on it all year because of the weather,” fourth grader Nate Marx told the School Board at its meeting Thursday. “I don’t mind playing on these (artificial) surfaces because I don’t plan to eat the little rubber pieces.”

Testimony from administrators and the public easily spilled over the two hours allotted for the public hearing on Memorial Stadium renovations.

Those in favor of artificial turf spoke of the need for increased field access, while those opposed cautioned that too little is known about the environmental and health effects of synthetic fields.

School board members were left with a mountain of information and a week to sift through it. They will vote on the field design at a special meeting Jan. 17.

Superintendent Ken Crawford and BHS Principal Brent Peterson urged the board move forward with the artificial turf plan to meet the demand of physical education and athletic programs.

Peterson said the natural grass field was already failing to meet educational needs.

“A challenge with our current natural turf field, beyond age and disrepair, is that around 45 percent of the year we have to put a big “Closed” sign up,” Peterson said.

Artificial turf will cost nearly $500,000 more than a natural field, but administrators said the field could sustain 10 times as much use, making it a more cost-effective option.

The district’s Capital Projects Advisory Committee also recommended the board approve the turf field, but asked the district to continue to studying natural grass as a future option.

The lone dissenting member in CPAC’s decision was Chris Van Dyk, who has lead a campaign against artificial fields on the island.

He said he supports the district’s efforts to improve fields but said the bond money being used for renovations was designated for improvements district wide and the board didn’t have the authority to allocate money for just one field.

Multiple natural grass fields would be a safer, cheaper alternative he said.

“There are alternatives out there,” Van Dyk said. “I’m very grateful that CPAC kept the door open for finding alternatives and putting alternatives on the table.”

Van Dyk and a number of islanders have raised questions about the environmental and health risks associated with the crumb rubber pellets used to cushion synthetic fields. Studies have identified toxins including carcinogens in some of the rubber, much of which comes from recycled tires. But questions remain the seriousness of the health risk it poses.

Dr. Michael Johns, an islander who works for the Seattle firm Windward Environmental, tried to answer those questions using available studies.

In a presentation to the board he said he had modeled scenarios for a middle school student playing on fields for three years, and a high school-aged student playing for seven years, 261 days out of the year.

Johns said he studied exposure through inhalation, skin absorption and ingestion with the highest levels of chemicals that have been found in crumb rubber and concluded that both the cancer risk and general poisoning risk were lower than acceptable standards.

“We feel pretty comfortable that the health risks for children playing soccer, lacrosse and football at these levels are pretty low,” Johns said.

Students, some in team uniforms, spoke about the poor state of island fields and year-round opportunities offered by artificial turf.

“I know that after just one of our football games the field was horrible,” BHS junior Kyle Szarzymski said. “After a lacrosse game, the 50 yard line is destroyed.”

Some students worried that Bainbridge athletes would be at a disadvantage if they didn’t practice on artificial turf, which has become the prevalent play surface in the region.

Several parents and coaches echoed the need for expanded recreational use on the island, and said an improved high school field would help ease the impact on parks like Battle Point.

Alex Von Reis Crooks said adult soccer clubs would be willing to pay a fee for using the high school field to help defray the added cost.

Jim Harmon, a Bainbridge Island Lacrosse board member, asked the board to treat the field like any other facility.

“Having a field closed half the year is like having a classroom, an auditorium or library closed half the year,” he said.

Parents and community members speaking against the proposal said there were too many unknowns about the health risk of artificial turf, and too high a cost to make it a sound option.

Elise Wright said the field project reminded her of a time when the Blakely Elementary Parent Teacher Organization had raised funds to replace decrepit playground equipment.

The play structure they chose happened to be treated with creosote, something they didn’t know at the time was toxic she said, “We had the best intentions in the world.”

If there is any doubt about the safety of artificial turf, Wright said, the board should error on the side of protecting kids.

“In ten years it isn’t going to matter what surface they played on,” she said. “What will matter is if in 20 years they get cancer.”

Several said the risk of injury and infection were also understudied while Louis Richard said Johns’ study was just another interpretation of the data.

“You see a lot of different people can come up with different answers to the same question,” he said.

Dan Gallagher said he wanted to see the best fields possible, but was concerned about the effects of crumb rubber leaching into ground water and questioned the logic of trucking in known carcinogens of any amount.

“That’s the bottom line - it’s a higher risk,” he said. “Let’s do what’s safest for the kids, and safest for all of us and for the environment we live in. And that is up for you to decide.”

That decision is expected from the board next week.

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