The Fairfax County Park Authority reached a compromise on Thursday, July 27, to convert the Vanessa Péan # 7 soccer field at the Great Falls Nike Park from Bermuda grass into synthetic turf.
The deal was struck when the county agreed to abandon installing a field that used a crumb rubber and cork infill system from the FieldTurf company called CoolPlay. In its place, the county will still purchase the materials from the FieldTurf company, but instead of its CoolPlay system, the compromise field will use the company’s EcoGreen system, which uses an infill system made entirely of TPE, or thermo plastic elastomer.
TPE is a non-toxic, heavy-metal-free infill that is 100 percent recyclable and reusable when the field is replaced, according to the Synthetic Turf Council, a trade association for the synthetic turf industry. TPE infill uses virgin-based material, while crumb rubber is composed of used tires.
Construction for the new 360-yard-by-210-yard synthetic turf field could begin as soon as this week so it can be completed in time for the fall soccer season by the end of September or early October, according to David Bowden, director of the Fairfax County Park Authority Planning and Development Division.
Community Blocks Crumb Rubber in Great Falls
The plans for the renovation, announced to the public in May, were met with a steady stream of opposition as the news trickled throughout the Great Falls community, first from the Great Falls Citizens Association, then local advocates with the national Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition and Gail Péan, the mother of the late teen whose name graces the sign and memorial on the field.
The opposition to the renovation spouted from the materials the park authority and the Great Falls Soccer Club initially agreed to use on the field: crumb rubber.
This is the second time the citizens association intervened on plans to convert a natural grass field into artificial turf in Great Falls. In 2012, the GFCA prevented the Great Falls Lacrosse Association from using crumb rubber when it was converting the Nike Field # 4 from natural grass to synthetic turf, according to Glen Sjoblom, a member of the GFCA Environment, Parks and Trails Committee. The compromise for that dispute was to use a TPE field as well.
“In 2012 the Park Authority started a pilot project at Great Falls Nike Park [field # 4] to evaluate the performance of an alternative rubber infill product known as TPE throughout the 10-year lifecycle of the field,” said a press release announcing the deal from the park authority on July 27. “This is our opportunity to continue that evaluation process using TPE infill on field # 7.”
However, since then, concern over the safety of crumb rubber and synthetic turf has grown nationwide.
Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Consumer Product Safety Commission launched a multi-agency “Federal Research Action Plan on Recycled Tire Crumb Used on Playing Fields and Playgrounds” to study environmental and human health concerns around artificial turf.
The agencies have not published any findings on whether crumb rubber is carcinogenic yet. However, a status report was released on Dec. 30, 2016, that identified chemicals found in tire crumb.
Chemicals of concern used in tire manufacturing range from polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in carbon black to zinc oxide (ZnO), which is used as a vulcanizing agent and could contain trace amounts of lead and cadmium oxides, according to the status report.
In the meantime, research continues and the agencies are collecting and analyzing samples of tire crumb material collected from tire recycling plans and synthetic turf fields around the country.
Community members aren’t waiting for the results.
The GFCA Environment, Parks and Trails Committee approved a resolution on May 5 opposing the Nike # 7 conversion using crumb rubber; Amy Stephan, a Great Falls resident and advocate with the Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition, spoke against the conversion of the field during a community meeting about the plans at the Great Falls Grange on May 25; Gail Péan protested the turf renovation on Saturday, June 10, at the park during a “Family Fun Day” event hosted by the Great Falls Soccer Club to raise funds for the conversion and has collected more than 300 signatures (161 online and the rest in person) in a “Keep Nike # 7 a Safe Soccer Field” petition on iPetitions.com; and the GFCA Executive Board approved a final resolution on June 29 and sent a letter by email to Supervisor John Foust, who represents Great Falls and the Dranesville District on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, asking him to:
support the construction of the soccer field without delay by selecting an alternative infill that did not include tire crumb rubber;
continue to oppose the use of crumb rubber on playing fields in Great Falls; and
ask the county to conduct further studies into the safety and functional characteristics — lifecycle cost, durability, warranty validity and functionality — of alternative playing field surfaces, including both artificial and natural grass.
Community Challenges County’s Use of Crumb Rubber
In addition to banishing crumb rubber from being used on fields in its community, the citizens association’s final resolution also asked the county to immediately ban the installation of fields using crumb rubber throughout the county, which the county recently refused to do earlier this year.
In a Feb. 2 “Update on Synthetic Turf Fields” memorandum to the board, County Executive Edward Long, Jr., who retired in May, stated that “currently available research on artificial turf has not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with crumb rubber. As such, the county will continue its standard practice of using crumb rubber as a synthetic turf infill until new scientific evidence or guidance about the public health risk of crumb rubber emerges.”
Kirk Kincannon, the park authority’s executive director, was appointed acting county executive effective Sept. 16 by the board on July 25.
There are 48 athletic fields in Fairfax County that are composed of crumb rubber and synthetic turf material that are used by public schools and parks, according to the park authority website. However, that number has grown.
“Just in Fairfax County alone, we have over 80 between us and schools, over 80 turf fields,” Bowden said.
Though Kincannon has not responded to the GFCA resolution’s request, the county’s fields are among the pool of fields that the federal, multi-agency study is testing, according to Bowden.
“The ones that have been done, and we haven’t conducted one ourselves, but the ones that have been done nationally, again, have come out and said that there’s no reason not to use synthetic turf,” Bowden said. “And, of course, that’s with the crumb rubber. And in this case [Nike # 7], we don’t plan on using that.”
While Great Falls takes on the county, other jurisdictions are shying away from using artificial turf until the federal multi-agency investigation publishes its final determination on whether artificial turf fields are safe or not.
Across the Potomac River in Maryland, the Montgomery County Council approved a resolution in 2015 banning crumb rubber fields by requiring all new artificial turf playing fields use only plant-derived infill materials in projects where county funds or contracts for the installation are used.
Not All Pleased With Compromise TPE
While the county’s top official defended crumb rubber, Foust took action to help his concerned constituents by urging the county to find alternative materials for the field and to prevent any costs the new materials would incur from increasing the soccer club’s financial obligations to the project.
Foust sent an email on June 30 with the instructions to Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova; GFCA President Bill Canis and the association’s executive board; Park Authority Board Chairman William Bouie and Dranesville Member Timothy Hackman; Kirk Kincannon, who led the park authority at the time, and David Bowden, the director of its Planning and Development Division; and Will Simonds, the soccer club’s commissioner, and Fred Rothmeijer, the soccer club’s vice president of fields.
“I understand your concerns with crumb rubber, especially given the heavy reliance on well water in Great Falls,” Foust’s email said. “I agree with your recommendation that the park authority move forward expeditiously to select an artificial or natural grass alternative for Nike 7 that does not include crumb rubber. By copy of this email, I am requesting that the park authority not use crumb rubber at Nike 7. Instead, I request that the park authority, in consultation with Great Falls Soccer Association, select an appropriate artificial or grass alternative as soon as possible to avoid any further delay. I am also asking that the park authority attempt to mitigate any impact on GFSA if the alternative selected is more costly than the crumb rubber alternative would have been.”
The new materials increased the cost of the project by $30,000, which the soccer club agreed to take on, since the TPE material is what it had been pushing the county to use for its new field from the beginning.
“We actually don’t want the crumb rubber,” said Simonds, commissioner of the GFSC. “We had said that right at the beginning to the county, but there’s a cost associated with [TPE] that’s a bit more than the crumb rubber.”
Mom on a Mission
Though the parties who are funding the project agreed with the compromise, Gail Péan and anti-turf advocates are still demanding the field only use natural grass systems.
Péan was invited to meet at the Great Falls Library on Tuesday, July 18, to talk with David Bowden from the park authority, Jane Edmondson, Foust’s chief of staff, and Simonds from the GFSC, where Bowden explained the compromise that had been reached between the county, GFCA and the soccer club.
Bowden began the meeting by apologizing to Péan for not reaching out to her and including her in the project sooner.
“We’re not touching the memorial to your daughter and we have no plans not to keep the field named after your daughter,” Bowden said.
“OK, thank you,” Péan replied.
When Péan was told that the field would use a TPE infill system, she asked that the TPE field that already existed at the park be studied to ensure the synthetic materials didn’t have any adverse impact on the environment and nearby neighbors’ well water quality.
Bowden responded by reiterating the county’s stance on turf fields and that they are safe and by assuring Péan of the park’s stormwater management system.
He told Péan that the water coming off the field would first drain through the field itself, then travel through an overland relief drainage system and then empty into a stormwater management pond adjacent to the field.
“It’s basically treated three times before it leaves the site,” he said.
“It is a huge concern of citizens in Great Falls, that anything that’s artificial is going to have with the sun baking on this, there are going to be chemicals that are released into the water, and what are these chemicals?” Péan said. “And it may not show up the first year, but it will soon show up and I think they should test the water that’s nearest to Nike.”
Bowden told Péan that the virgin plastic material would pose no threat and that the county’s well water is tested each year.
“We can provide the chemical makeup of the TPE, which is really pretty much sterile,” Bowden said. “It’s designed to a standard of stormwater that’s way above the normal county stormwater management requirements,” he added.
Edmondson also told Péan that her request would not be considered because it isn’t required for the project.
“I think what you’re asking for as one citizen is something that, right now, is not required of the county when they put in a turf field, regardless of whether it’s grass,” Edmondson said.
She also told Péan that the compromise accomplished its goal of avoiding the use of crumb rubber.
“I think they have practiced due diligence,” she said. “I think that the park authority and Great Falls Soccer have in good faith responded to the GFCA resolution and to suggest perhaps that there be a test and that somehow the results of that test might stop this project, I don’t think is appropriate.”
Péan refused to accept their answer and isn’t giving up on pushing the county to conduct an environmental study on TPE.
In an email to Foust and Bowden on Thursday, July 27, Péan threatened legal action if the county did not conduct a referendum and turn the decision over to the residents of Great Falls, stating the use of TPE disregarded the county’s fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers.
“I plan to take legal action if I do not receive a written guarantee that you will not begin construction of a TPE field on Nike # 7 July 31, 2017, without an informed Great Falls resident community vote,” her email said.
She also demanded the park authority release any environmental studies conducted on the TPE field # 4 that exist.
“Please release to the Great Falls community environmental air water and soil studies done since 2012 on Nike No. 4 so the entire community can make an informed decision whether a TPE turf is something they want to take financial and environmental responsibility for,” the email added.
The Connection asked the park authority for the data of any tests that were performed on the TPE field # 4. Judith Pedersen, a park authority spokesperson, said she was not aware of any studies but would check to verify. She said she did not think she could get a final answer in time for the deadline of this paper, but is working on the request.
Péan and anti-turf advocates also worry about the heat-related safety risks involved with people playing on synthetic turf, which they claim become “superheated to temperatures from 120 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit” on warm days.
Péan’s email provided data collected from the Nike TPE field # 4 on July 27 by Amy Stephan, a Great Falls resident and advocate with the Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition.
“Today at 12:55 [p.m.], Amy Stephan measured and tested the field temperature of Nike # 4, a TPE turf field, at 151 degrees [Fahrenheit] while the outside temperature is only 81 [degrees Fahrenheit] in the sun and 75 [degrees Fahrenheit] in the shade,” her email said.
Péan’s email also said the Great Falls Soccer Club vote on whether to convert the # 7 field only received participation from 20 percent of the club’s 600-family membership with approximately 1,200 children, and only 70 percent of the 20 percent voted in favor of the conversion.
Simonds confirmed these numbers during the meeting at the library.
“That’s a typical sort of number when you do a survey,” he said during the meeting.
“So less than 100 people should not and cannot represent the interest of over 8,000 residents affected by this financial debt and environmental hazards,” Péan’s email said.
While Simonds sympathizes with Péan, he stands by the turf field and says his players’ safety is at stake.
“She pulled my heart strings, and I get it, but from a club perspective and from a survey that we took from our memberships, they really want a synthetic grass field,” he said. “We’ve only got that one field and it’s not doing her daughter any service,” he added. “It’s in terrible shape and kids are going to roll their ankles. It’s become actually dangerous to play on because it’s in such bad shape.”
“We would love to keep it named after [Vanessa] if [Gail] wants to,” Simonds added. “We definitely need to turf the field and if she doesn’t want her daughter’s name associated with that, that’s too bad, we’d love to keep it, but if that’s the case, I’d understand that too.”