Verdant to fund study on artificial turf options; parents plan rally at Tuesday school board meeting

The current play field at the former Woodway High School.
The current play field at the former Woodway High School.

In light of public concerns expressed about a plan to install an artificial turf field at the former Woodway High School, the Verdant Health Commission said Monday it plans to conduct an independent study and review of artificial turf options and report back to the community.

“We recognize that there has been a lot of community input” regarding artificial turf options, said Verdant Commission Superintendent Carl Zapora, “and out of an abundance of caution we thought it appropriate for us to to provide a second opinion.”

Zapora stressed that the outcome of the report will not affect the $2.5 million Verdant has already granted for the multi-use “health and wellness campus” project that also includes the Edmonds School District and the City of Edmonds. The final decision on which type of turf to use will be up to the school district, Zapora said.

But he did leave the door open to the possibility that Verdant could provide additional money to cover the cost of a more expensive type of artificial turf, if the school district made such a funding request. Verdant Commissioners in the past have voted to increase grant amounts, at the grantees’ request, he said.

“We are always open to changes in any funding as circumstances change,” Zapora said.

The Edmonds School Board is scheduled to make a decision Tuesday night, May 12, on what type of field turf to use for the Woodway project. Dozens of parents opposing tire crumb artificial turf — which has been linked to possible cancer concerns — have spoken during the past two months at school district-sponsored community meetings, school board meetings, a City of Edmonds Hearing Examiner’s meeting and an Edmonds City Council meeting. Parents have urged the district to look at other artificial turf field options, which they believe pose fewer health and environmental risks than the tire crumb rubber.

At the last school board meeting, April 26, the board made a decision on turf for a different project — the Edmonds District Stadium that hosts all of the district’s high school football and soccer games — and voted for the tire crumb rubber. Board members did talk about the possibility of purchasing artificial turf using “Nike Grind” material — essentially ground-up sneakers from a Nike-sponsored shoe recycling program — rather than tire crumb, but school board member April Nowak was the lone advocate for that option. Other board members said they weren’t convinced the Nike Grind was any safer, and they noted that it cost $80,000 more per field.

Parents opposed to the crumb rubber turf have also suggested another option — Geo Turf, a mix of coconut husks, cork and sand that is being used on other fields in the U.S. However, School District Superintendent Nick Broissoit told a group of parent representatives in an email last Friday, with a copy sent to My Neighborhood News, that the Geo Turf was not a practical alternative, since it requires “increased maintenance including regular watering – as often as every day to maintain its viability even when the fields are not in use.”

“These products have not seen widespread use and where they have been used are typically in much drier climates,” Brossoit added.

An industrial hygienist hired by the district to review the issue “had serious concerns about the coconut husk and cork based products referred to as Geo Turf, in particular as untested and used in the wet climate of the Northwest,” Brossoit said in the email.

In addition, Brossoit said, “the majority of District taxpayers would not support using public funds for experimentation with alternate infill materials.”

Parents advocating for turf alternatives worry that the board’s 4-1 decision April 26 to go with the tire crumb option for Edmonds Stadium signals that the board will choose the same surface for the Woodway field project. Yet, parents are still encouraging school board members to look at other options, and the group will also hold what they have described as a “peaceful rally” prior to Tuesday’s board meeting.

Installation of the two new multi-use turf fields is scheduled to take place this summer, so that they will be ready for use in the fall. There are plans to install two more fields if additional funding becomes available.

As for the Verdant study, Zapora said that it only makes sense for the commission to look into the safety of turf fields given its commitment to advocating for health and wellness — including activities that may involve turf play fields — in South Snohomish County.

The commission plans this week to contract with an independent consultant who is an environmental health expert, has a background in toxicology and is familiar with the three different surfaces that have been the focus of current community discussion: tire crumb rubber, Nike Grind and Geo Turf.

The goal is to have the consultant research and review all scientifically-based studies on turf field safety and provide a report to Verdant in time for the commissioners’ next meeting, May 27, which will be open to the public.

Regardless of what the school board decides to do about the Woodway field project, “we just want to get the best up-to-date, scientific research and data that we can,” Zapora said. “Down the road, this information may be helpful. We think that it’s important.”

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