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Spinelli Field. Photo by Isabel Wissner, Vermont News & Media correspondent

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BENNINGTON — Responding to concerns about the possibility of cancer-causing materials in turf fields, planners of a synthetic playing surface for Spinelli Field say they’ve been assured the field will not be a source of them.

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said last week that he’d heard from several residents concerned about reports elsewhere of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl) contaminants in turf materials, and they sought information about the surface planned at Mount Anthony Union High School.

The MAU District Board has scheduled a bond vote for Nov. 2, seeking $3.5 million to convert the playing surface to synthetic turf, resurface the running track and fix drainage problems. Also included are a multipurpose ticket and storage building with heating and bathrooms, and a crow’s nest for the filming and broadcasting of games.

Campion said he contacted MAU officials about the concerns, which prompted a reply from the board and the project designers, along with written assurances obtained from the vendors of the turf field and track materials, and back-up testing data.

“I think it’s important that we have our ducks in order,” and these questions answered before the project goes before the voters, Campion said.

Among those expressing concerns about contamination in turf field materials were Judith Enck, a former federal Environmental Protection Agency regional director and a visiting professor at the Center for Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, and associate CAPA director and faculty member David Bond.

REPORT ISSUED

“We are gathering information that will answer concerns some folks may have,” MAU Board Chairman Timothy Holbrook said Tuesday in an email.

Later, in response to questions from the project engineering and design firms, the turf field and track vendors told project planners that testing has shown PFAS chemicals are not present in the artificial surfaces — for either the planned athletic field or the running track.

A memo prepared for school officials by project designers MSK Engineers and Goldstone Architecture, and obtained Wednesday by the Banner concludes that, “Based on the information contained in the attached documents from track and turf suppliers, the products listed in the report are free of PFCs [perfluorinated chemicals, which include PFAS]. Additionally, to assure that the final materials selected are free of these substances, we will specify that whatever manufacturer and product is selected for the turf and track installation provides adequate documentation that the system is free of PFCs.”

The memo states that MSK and Goldstone have “received several independent testing reports and testimonials regarding PFCs in both synthetic turf and athletic track surfacing systems. The synthetic turf reports show that they are not produced with any PFAS chemicals indicated on either the U.S. EPA’s [testing] Method 537 or on California’s [regulations]. The athletic track surfacing system testimonials indicate the components that comprise the systems are free of PFCs.”

In an email seeking confirmation about PFAS from the vendor companies, Timothy Severance, of Goldstone Architecture, noted, “This is extremely important as Bennington (and surrounding areas) have been plagued with PFOA contamination for some time now and it is a sensitive subject. Please send us whatever information you have indicating that your systems are free of these or similar compounds; let us know as soon as possible.”

LONG PFAS HISTORY

Bond and Enck were in the forefront of the area’s response to discovery of widespread contamination of well-water supplies in Bennington in 2016, largely from the PFAS chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).

State environmental officials identified the principal sources as two former ChemFab Corp. factories, the last of which operated until 2002, which had deposited airborne PFOA contamination over a wide area — largely emanating from the factory exhaust stacks.

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The chemical, first detected here in well water tests in 2016, is believed to have worked its way through soils into groundwater and into hundreds of local wells.

Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the last owner of the factories before the operations were transferred to New Hampshire industrial sites, has reached agreement with the state to provide more than $50 million for water line extensions to those with contaminated wells and to cover other costs borne by the state in responding to the pollution.

In addition, the company is a defendant in a class-action suit in U.S. District Court in Rutland, seeking damages on behalf of multiple property owners and individuals who drank contaminated well water and now have elevated levels of PFOA in their blood.

The chemical has been associated through medical studies with ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and diagnosed high cholesterol.

MULTIPLE COMMUNITIES

Enck and Bond noted that residents in numerous communities around the country have raised concerns about the suspected effects of materials in artificial athletic surfaces, not only concerning PFAS chemicals.

Among many articles on the subject, a New York Times article this month focused on an increasing number of battles in communities where turf fields are proposed, with climate change concerns emerging as issues, along with the potential effects on health and on the environment around the sites.

“It does not make sense to rip out natural grass and replace it with a combination of shredded plastics and rubber,” Enck said in an email. “Both materials contain contaminants. The synthetic turf gets very hot on warm days, posing a risk of injury to students.”

She added, “Also, climate change has brought more intense rainstorms to Vermont. Larger amounts of rain come down in shorter periods of time. Natural grass fields are like sponges and soak up excess water. You do not get that benefit with synthetic turf.”

“Artificial turf fields promise easy operations, but their installation is becoming ensnared in toxic problems across the U.S.,” Bond said in an email. “A handful of recent studies have found alarming levels of PFAS and other toxic chemicals in artificial turf, leading respected medical experts like Mount Sinai Children’s Health Center to call for a moratorium on new artificial turfs at schools.”

He said there could be legal ramifications for the town, as well.

“If any PFAS did leach out of a turf field at the high school, we should expect corporate lawyers for Saint-Gobain to demand the school district take responsibility for every contaminated residential well downgradient of the field,” Bond said.

The advantages of a synthetic surface, proponents say, include less costly maintenance than with a grass field, and the ability to have a more expansive athletic schedule and practice sessions without the grass being destroyed.

In addition, a synthetic field could allow Bennington to host tournaments involving student athletes and fans from around the state or beyond because of the durable surface, possibly bringing in visitors who could boost the local economy.

Jim Therrien writes for Vermont News and Media, including the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com

Reporter/editor

Jim Therrien reports for the three Vermont News and Media newspapers in Southern Vermont. He previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Berkshire Eagle, the Bennington Banner, the Springfield Republican, and the former North Adams Transcript.


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