Water on Spinelli Field

Spinelli field after a rainfall.

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BENNINGTON — Mount Anthony Union School District board members got an earful Wednesday night from advocates on both sides of the debate over whether an artificial turf or upgraded natural grass field is best for a proposed Spinelli field upgrade and makeover.

Environmentalists voiced concerns about the potential presence of the PFAS or other harmful chemicals in the artificial turf, while supporters of the project expressed confidence that an artificial turf made of more organic components could be guaranteed for the upgrade.

Voters will make the final decision when they go to the polls Nov. 2 to act on a $3.5 million bond request to convert the Spinelli field playing surface to synthetic turf, resurface the running track and fix drainage problems. Included are a multipurpose ticket and storage building with heating and bathrooms, and a crow’s nest for the filming and broadcasting of games.

The board hearing Wednesday night was one of two planned to provide the public with information about the project. The second will be an informational session on Monday at 6 p.m. It will also be on Zoom.

Much of the public discussion has focused on the issue of what materials would be used in the synthetic surfaces, including a turf athletic field at the high school and a running track, and specifically if those surfaces will PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that could spread contamination from the field to the local environment.

FOCUS ON PFAS

Jon Groveman, of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, a Montpelier-based environmental advocacy group, traced the history of the PFAS chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which was discovered in 2016 to have contaminated groundwater and hundreds of private drinking water wells in Bennington. The chemical was determined by the state to have spread through the air from two former ChemFab Corp. factories in Bennington, and worked into the soil and wells.

Groveman, who has worked extensively on environmental law and policy, said the substances were widely used in consumer and other products over more than five decades, and PFAS chemicals are very slow to break down.

They are “extremely persistent and highly mobile,” and capable of spreading rapidly through groundwater, Groveman said.

Noting that planners of the Spinelli field project have received assurances from the turf surface vendors that PFAS was not detected in their products, Groveman said voters should keep in mind “how limited” the current testing capacity is for the full range of PFAS chemicals — about 9,000 in number. The state has only thus far developed drinking water standards for PFOA and a handful of the related chemicals, he said, “but there are many more PFAS chemicals out there.”

Groveman said it should be noted that PFOA itself was not a known source of contamination in Vermont before the first Bennington wells were tested in 2016. That set off a massive state response and continuing remediation effort and left hundreds of residents with elevated levels of PFOA — associated with certain cancers and other diseases or medical conditions — in their blood. Prior to that discovery, which mirrored contamination found in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and hundreds of industrial sites around the country, citizens were being “assured that [the factory operations] were safe,” he said.

Lauren Hierl of Montpelier, executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters, who has worked on toxic chemical problems in Vermont, recommended more questioning of the turf vendors on the materials to be used on the field. She and Groveman said fluorine was detected through tests in the turf materials, which they said could indicate that one or more of the PFAS chemicals are present.

Despite the industry assurances she’s heard, Hierl said that “over and over again” she has seen instances when the chemicals involved did “in fact become a problem” for people exposed to them or for the environment. She said she would advise caution in bringing any potentially toxic chemicals into the community when there are natural alternatives available.

“I hope you and the community will also consider the lifecycle and disposal issues” involved in replacing a turf field at the end of its useful lifespan, Hierl said.

NOT SEEN AS THREAT

Laura Green, president and senior toxicologist with Green Toxicology LLC, based in Brookline, Mass., discounted that the presence of fluorine detected in the turf materials was indicative of potentially harmful PFAS contamination. She noted that the vendors for the turf and track surfaces have informed school officials that PFAS was not detected in the materials to be used at Spinelli.

Green, who was hired as a consultant by the project designers, said the presence of fluorine is explained by turf manufacturers’ use of “an inert” material that is “technically PFAS” but is also used in medical products, such as sutures, and not considered harmful. She also noted that artificial turf — beginning with AstroTurf in the Houston Astrodome — has been used for about 60 years and is today on “literally hundreds of thousands of fields” worldwide.

“We know a lot about what happens when these fields get rained on,” she said, referring to possible runoff that might contaminate groundwater or surface water.

Green also has worked as a consultant on numerous similar projects in communities around the country.

VENDORS QUESTIONED

Jason Dolmetsch, of MSK Engineering, representing the Spinelli project, talked about the responses his firm received from the turf field and running track vendors about the possibility of PFAS in their products.

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A formal memo prepared for MAU officials by MSK Engineers and Goldstone Architecture concludes, “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 also 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.”

LIABILITY CONCERNS

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who called into the board meeting, said he wanted to describe how the Legislature has addressed the threats posed by toxic industrial chemicals since PFOA showed up in multiple well tests in 2016.

Campion, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and other members of the Bennington County delegation also have backed legislation that would hold liable for remediation costs any business using chemicals or manufacturing products with chemicals that wind up as contamination in water supplies or the environment. Other legislation seeks “to keep PFAS out of products” used in Vermont, as well as to protect students from lead in school drinking water, radon in buildings and other hazards, he said.

“The Legislature is going to continue in this direction,” Campion said.

SAINT-GOBAIN AGREEMENTS

Dina Atwood, of Stitzel, Page & Fletcher, legal counsel for the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, said she was asked to provide information the MAU Board received on a specific liability issue that has been raised during the debate.

She said an opinion was initially sought by Town Manager Stuart Hurd from the state Agency of Natural Resources as to whether a state agreement with Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics to help remediate PFOA pollution in Bennington might be voided or reduced if PFAS was later traced to a turf field at the high school. Atwood said Hurd asked the question of ANR Commissioner Peter Walke, who responded that the agreement with the firm that last operated the ChemFab plant here in 2002 would not be jeopardized, even if it were determined the turf field had PFAS in it.

The state ANR entered into two consent agreements with Saint-Gobain that called for the firm to provide around $50 million to extend town water lines to residents with contaminated wells, and cover monitoring and other costs to the state in dealing with the pollution.

Another point that has been made is that Mount Anthony Union High School is located near the downtown, an area served by municipal water rather than private wells. The town water system was not found to be contaminated.

THE ‘BEST OPTION’

Mike Molloy, who heads the Spinelli Field Ad Hoc Committee, which looked into options for upgrading the high school’s grass field, the running track and related facilities, and Ashley Hoyt, the MAU athletic director, also spoke.

Molloy said the committee’s decision to seek a synthetic turf field was a relatively easy one, considering the extended use by multiple MAU teams and community sports organizations that would be possible — as opposed to the severely limited use allowed by a grass field, especially in wet weather.

In addition, he said, the final cost was estimated to be “only a couple of hundred thousand dollars more, and we’d get so much more usage and playability” with a turf field, compared to the cost of installing a new grass surface.

Molloy also announced that project planners are exploring the use of an alternatives to the “crumb rubber” in-fill material that is spread over the artificial grass surface and resembles natural dirt. The crumb rubber, which often has come from ground up old motor vehicle tires, has been known to contain some of the toxic chemicals used in manufacturing tires. Malloy said alternative organic materials are being considered for that purpose for the Spinelli project.

“This is really about upgrading and getting a new kind of spirit for the kids and in the community and for members of the community,” Molloy said of the project. “That field will be used all the time.”

Hoyt said that not long after starting at MAU in 2018, she realized that replacing the current grass field, which many were advocating, “was really something that had to be looked at.”

Restrictions on playing and practice time — and on the number of teams having access — with a grass field that is unplayable at times and a track with a couple of “sinkholes” are her major concerns as athletic director, she said.

The meeting Wednesday was recorded by CAT-TV and can be viewed on the local cable network or through its Facebook page.

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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