Is fake turf green enough?

Controversy over new soccer fields takes on an environmental focus.

A proposal to improve Battle Point Park has sparked a turf war over turf.

The 1,100-member Bainbridge Island Youth Soccer Club’s offer last month to install two artificial turf fields at the park has drawn criticism from nearby residents who fear the upgrades could pollute ground water and harm the environment.

“The major environmental concern with the current proposal is with the potential (contamination) from the synthetic turf. Specifically, the potential for heavy metal leaching from the recycled rubber in-fill,” said Skinner Road resident Derek Tetlow.

The soccer club proposes to raise up to $800,000 in private funds to install “FieldTurf,” a popular artificial surface, on both fields. The park district would contribute another $200,000 to the project, toward a total project cost estimated at $1 million.

Earlier this year, the club proposed to install overhead lights as part of an overall fields improvement project.

But lights drew strong opposition from neighbors who hope to preserve the area’s rural character and by astronomers who feared the light would infringe on stargazing. The park board vetoed the lights, but agreed to work with the soccer club to refurbish the fields, considered substandard and unsafe.

The club’s proposal to install “FieldTurf” drew new concerns.

Jay Trinidad, a member of Friends of Bainbridge Parks, said his group neither endorses nor opposes artificial turf, but “is concerned that sufficient research has yet been done to guide a decision on the matter.”

Trinidad, in a letter to the park district, called for further study of artificial turf’s impact on the island’s water supply, “particularly in light of the fact that runoff will enter the aquifer that provides water to hundreds of homes.”

He also believes more research into the possible effects on wildlife habitat and migratory birds is required.

In his letter, Trinidad cites a study conducted by Washington State University that states that it is “abundantly clear” that “rubber should not be used as a landscape amendment. There is no question that toxic substances leach from rubber as it degrades, contaminating the soil, landscape plants and associated aquatic systems.”

The study, conducted by WSU horticulturist Linda Chalker-Scott, asserts that used rubber contains a toxic mix of aluminum, cadmium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, sulfur and zinc.

Additional toxins, including lead, may have been absorbed into the rubber while in use as tires.

But the level at which two soccer fields may contaminate the surrounding area is still in question, Trinidad admits.

“We have been unable to find any scientific study that states that the materials that are being considered pose no environmental risk to groundwater,” he wrote. “Likewise, we have been unable to find any scientific study that states that the materials pose a clear and serious risk to water quality.”

Trinidad also fears health risks to players. He cites studies that connect artificial turf with staph infections and other injuries. One study, conducted by McGill University in Montreal, Canada, shows a higher rate of lower-body injuries on turf than natural grass in both dry and wet conditions.

Still, many local players – young and old – can’t wait to run the plastic pitch.

“As a 68-year old player, (artificial turf) enables me to continue playing,” said Max Marinoni, who participates in a Seattle soccer league. “It’s easy on one’s articulations – ankles, heels, knees – due to its shock-absorbing qualities.”

Chandler Foster, who plays on a teen club team, told the park district in a letter that it would be “a great help” if the park district would consider “making the sand fields at Battle Point into nice turf fields.”

Soccer coach and Arrow Point Drive resident Richard Storch called Battle Point’s fields “embarrassing and probably unsafe for play,” adding that a poorly maintained natural field is more dangerous than a turf one.

Other club members said artificial turf may be less costly to maintain and would require no chemical fertilizers. Having a few turf fields would also allow other grass-covered ones more time to recuperate.

While the time for public comment over turf fields ended recently, park board chair Kirk Robinson said he doesn’t yet know whether to go natural or artificial. He said the board will deliberate Thursday and could hire a consultant to study the various impacts of turf fields.

Robinson said the soccer club has “graciously provided a gift to the community” that some residents have misunderstood.

Robinson believes critics of artificial turf should consider the possibility of mitigating the potential environmental impacts, including retention ponds to gather runoff. He also points out that the existing fields at Battle Point were capped with 4 inches of sand and chrome rubber about 15 years ago.

Robinson said he and the board must weigh the potential benefits to park users with the potential for environmental contamination.

“It comes down to how serious of an issue this is,” he said. “Can it be mitigated naturally or by some other means? I don’t know. I’ve still got to do the mental gymnastics on how significant this is, because there are some legitimate questions out there.”

* * * * *

Turf talk

The park board will discuss the club’s proposal at Thursday’s board meeting, starting at 7 p.m. at Strawberry Hill Center.

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