Rubber infill from the turf field at Weston Field adheres to a reporter's leg after a minute lying down on the surface to take a photo.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock School Committee last week declined to slow plans for installing an artificial turf field at the middle-high school but members noted that there is still time to weigh health and environmental concerns before shovels go into the ground.
The full School Committee earlier in the spring
authorized the Phase 2 grounds subcommittee to put the turf field out to bid this summer.
Since that time, committee members have heard from a number of residents concerned about studies that have linked "infill" materials in used in turf fields to higher rates of cancer and environmental contamination due to runoff from those fields.
"Some of the chemicals found in crumb rubber are known to cause cancer," a fact sheet from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at University of Massachusetts at Lowell reads in part. "Because of the large number of chemicals present in the infill, as well as the health effects of individual chemicals, crumb rubber made from recycled tires is the option that likely presents the most concerns related to chemical exposures."
One of the residents raising concerns, Anne O'Connor, addressed the Phase 2 subcommittee and attended the most recent School Committee meeting but was unable to address the panel, which did not have a public comment period listed on its agenda.
Committee member Dan Caplinger, in reporting out from the subcommittee, recognized the efforts by O'Connor and others to persuade the School Committee and said that he has "begun to take a more extensive look at the literature involved."
Caplinger said the Phase 2 group had previously weighed that evidence before taking a proposal to the full School Committee, and the subcommittee has given no indication that it wants to change course.
"The question is that there are concerns and responses that people on both sides of the issues have come up with," Caplinger said. "There's a difference of opinion about the scientific research involved. There have been studies that have failed to confirm the safety issues. There have been studies that have raised safety issues.
"It's fair to say it's an unresolved issue."
Caplinger said he is aware that the state of Connecticut has a bill in its legislature that would prevent using any municipal funding for turf fields.
"I don't know off the top of my head how far that legislation has gone," he said. "I don't discount the views that members of our community are presenting. But at the same time, we've been told throughout the process that these fields can be safe. … I feel comfortable the subcommittee has done its due diligence."
Phase 2 member John Skavlem, a former member of Williamstown Elementary School Committee, was quoted extensively in an in-depth article about the issue in the June 8 edition of The Greylock Echo, the school newspaper that each June is distributed to attendees at graduation.
Skavlem pointed to research in the state of Washington and in Holland, where no links to cancer were found from playing on fields that use the infill material in question.
Skavlem also noted to the student paper that there are environmental benefits to turf fields, which don't require watering, fertilizers or gasoline-powered mowers, like natural grass playing fields can.
O'Connor also was quoted in the Echo article, telling the student paper that she did not expect to "win" on the issue but wanted to bring awareness, particularly for parents in the school district whose children will be using the turf field for sports and physical education classes.
O'Connor, an activist on a number of environmental and social justice issues, stressed to the student paper, as she does often, that she was speaking as a private citizen and not in her capacity as a member of Williamstown's Select Board.
Caplinger pointed out at Thursday's School Committee meeting that while the district is moving forward with the turf field, it is far from a done deal.
"Part of the direction the full School Committee gave to the subcommittee is it authorized the bid, but the bid amount [$2.1 million] was low enough that we wouldn't necessarily get a bid that would meet that figure, so as a result of getting the bid, we'd get a better idea what the actual cost would be," Caplinger said.
"I'm not sure whether a delay of the bid is necessary for us in order to more fully consider the issue."
Some members of the School Committee last Thursday appeared committed to moving full-speed ahead with the project.
"My position is it's a done issue," Al Terranova said. "This is an excellent example of why things don't get done in government. We've been studying this for dozens and dozens and dozens of hours. I don't think it's as complex as people make it out to be.
"We're going out to bid … and now we're revisiting it again? Artificial turf is not new. Artificial turf has been around since 1960-something. … It's been around for half a century. It's not something that happened last month."
Terranova said the district has been talking about an artificial turf for years and implied that opponents were coming in at the 11th hour trying to stop it.
Superintendent Kimberley Grady countered that last point.
"I've known Anne [O'Connor] for a long time," Grady said. "She's not a wait-until-the-last-minute kind of person."
Committee members Christina Conry and Regina DiLego each agreed with Caplinger that the district should proceed with putting the project to bid, if only to gather information.
"I do believe we've made a vote," Conry said, referring to the May decision to put the project to bid. "Time is of the essence. There is value in going out to bid and seeing what comes back. I fully trust [the Phase 2 subcommittee has] vetted and talked to the architect and know the quality of the material."
"I see no reason to stop going out to bid," DiLego agreed. "For the reason we gave that we realize we may not get a bid that meets the number you have.
"We shouldn't shorten any time line we've put in place. We should explore the concerns more."