Environmental Concerns Prompt Dissenting Vote

Environmental Concerns Prompt Dissenting Vote

County Council approves spending for artificial turf at Wootton.

— Councilmember Marc Elrich took an authentic stand against artificial turf.

“I continue to be concerned with the health and environmental impacts,” he said. “I’ve talked with toxicologists and in the space of five minutes I get information that is reassuring and then I get information that is disconcerting. It’s hard to know where to come out.”

The Montgomery County County Council approved a $1.1 million appropriation for the building of an artificial turf field at Wootton High School at last week’s council session on Feb. 5.

Elrich was the lone dissenting vote on the nine-member council.

“I wish we would take a moratorium on artificial fields and ask the state [Environmental Protection Agency] to do some serious studies. I think we should be more cautious,” Elrich said.

“We should make this a matter of regulatory concern.”

THE WOOTTON PROJECT will be funded in part by the Bethesda Soccer Club, which will pay $900,000 in exchange for 900-1,000 hours of use per year for the next 10 years, according to council documents. The Wootton Booster Club will raise the final $200,000 necessary for the project.

Montgomery County Board of Education requested the $1.1 million of private funds in November, and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) recommended approval in December.

“I continue to be concerned with the health and environmental impacts … I think we should be more cautious.”

— Councilmember Marc Elrich

The project’s timetable is “very tight,” said James Song, director of the school system’s Department of Facilities Management. The goal, according to Song and school officials, is to complete installation of the field by the time fall sports begin.

Wootton High School is scheduled for its next modernization project in August 2020, with site completion in August 2021.

“This is the first artificial field installed outside a regular construction project,” said Essie McGuire, senior legislative analyst for the council at a council education subcommittee work session the week before the council’s vote.

Richard Montgomery High School and Walter Johnson High School have artificial turf fields; there are artificial fields at Blair Recreational Park, Fairland Recreational Park and three at the Germantown SoccerPlex, according to County Council documents. Some private schools in Potomac and Bethesda, including Bullis, have artificial turf fields.

THE LAST SIX YEARS the council has “learned more about artificial turf than we ever thought we would,” said Valerie Ervin, at the subcommittee work session the week before.

“I would like to challenge MCPS and the Board of Education to work with the environmental community of Montgomery County,” she said. “This is not the end, this is where we’re just getting started.”

West Montgomery County Citizens Association continues to express concerns about both the health and environmental safety of artificial turf.

“It is something that causes people to be anxious,” said Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Potomac). “But our county has done its due diligence.”

“No community in America has put a ban on artificial turf,” he said.

Phil Andrews applauded the efforts of environmental advocates such as Peggy Dennis, Diana Conway and Kathleen Michaels, who have all testified against the county’s use of artificial turf fields. They cite data from scientific studies across the United States, including one conducted in New Jersey that found that lead particulates can be found in the air and breathing zone of players on artificial athletic fields.

“Part of the issue is there are no Montgomery County guidelines or regulations for materials used in artificial fields,” said Michaels, a neuroscientist.

But Andrews said the council had to go with the best science available to it at this time.

“This is an outdoor field and will have a clear benefit to thousands of users,” he said. “We should continue to listen to the science, but at this point, the council is well justified in approving these fields.”

Conflicting science does raise concern, but the “conflicting evidence doesn’t rise to the level of a moratorium. I feel like we are doing the right thing as painful as it is,” said Berliner.