Time to turf the turf?

There are many costly discretionary projects on the Town’s agenda that do not appear to have broad, fully informed support from the residents and taxpayers of Qualicum Beach. This article is the first of a series of articles about what our Town is planning to do to our community with our money.

The Town has proposed to “replace the west half of the upper playing fields in the Community Park with an all-season turf surface.” Let’s put on our critical-thinking caps and walk through this proposal, starting with an analysis of the costs.

Four million, four hundred thousand, seven hundred and sixty-three dollars, and thirty-six cents!

The Town tells us that the estimated cost of the project is $4,400,763.36 – astounding precision for a project that hasn’t even been approved to proceed, let alone gone through competitive tenders and contract negotiations. The Town submitted a grant application to the feds requesting $3,169,735.71 which would, according to the Town, if received, leave the taxpayers of Qualicum Beach on the hook for [ONLY] $1,173.683.59 [plus any and all cost-overruns].

First question for the fifth graders out there (no help from parents allowed): Do these 3 numbers add up?  [Spoiler alert for the parents – the numbers do not add up. The Town’s proposal understates what we the taxpayers would be on the hook for by almost $60,000.]

To reduce the taxpayer hit, the Town suggests “Fundraising with local sporting groups will help offset the costs to the Town.” Really? By how much? One hundred percent, 10 percent? Where is the list of specific ‘local sporting groups’? What amounts has each group committed to spend annually, year by year (and to the penny, just to match the cost estimates)?

Later in the Town’s glowing account of its proposed project is the statement “Because of its consistent availability, a synthetic turf field is also a reliable source of rental revenue.” Really? Show us the demand. Where is the list of specific sources of future, net new, rental revenues and their projected individual annual commitments? The proposal goes on to state that “Synthetic turf fields can be utilized for about 3,000 hours of play per year.” Sure, and if you turn on the lights the potential usage could climb to 5,000 hours per year… hypothetically. Hypothetical numbers aside, since they are truly meaningless here, where is the comparison of annual current field use (on grass) vs. realistic future field use (on artificial turf)? Are the grass fields currently being used 100% of the time when they are available for use? The answer is no. One mother of young children reported she had no difficulty booking a field on short notice in prime season. The Town presents no evidence that their allusion to projected demand will match actual usage, certainly not in the numbers of hours they’re talking about, and not in paid hours.

Playing fields in Qualicum Beach’s Community Park

On-going maintenance costs – eliminating watering, mowing, fertilizing, and weed controls would be a saving no doubt, but where is the corresponding list of maintenance obligations for the proposed turf and a comparison of the two scenarios? It’s completely absent from the Town’s business case for this major expenditure. Let’s take a broader view of the matter. Assuming we actually do have a capacity constraint, why isn’t the Kwalikum high school field being put to use for this community purpose? Perhaps the school district would welcome the opportunity to raise some additional funds by renting their under-used field.

Perhaps an even more basic ‘turf’ question is needed here. The artificial turf would be a constructed surface serving recreational needs of a wide geographic area, beyond the bounds of Qualicum Beach, not unlike Ravensong aquatic centre and the Oceanside Place arena. Since the Regional District of Nanaimo owns and operates both the Ravensong pool and the Oceanside Place arena, why isn’t the RDN the designated builder – and funder – and risk taker – for this proposed artificial turf construction project?

Evidence of human health hazards, but undetermined risks

The Town has acknowledged that artificial turf does contain toxic hazards. What is less well known is the level of future adverse health effects associated with these chemicals, through ingestion, inhalation and dermal absorption. Angela Eykelbosh, an environmental health scientist associated with the BC Centre for Disease Control, has compiled a table of Human Health Risk Assessments (HHRAs), which the Town offers as proof that the risks are negligible. However, in an update entitled Artificial turf: The contributions and limits of toxicology in decision-making, published in December 2019, Dr. Eykelbosh acknowledges the limitations of an HHRA, which is “a theoretical exercise with some degree of unavoidable uncertainty.” What is not available yet are long-term epidemiological “studies that analyze health effects in actual people.” These fields will be used by children, some of whom may be playing on them for many years, during their most vulnerable developmental years from a health risk perspective.

The only set of real facts we have is the list of synthetic chemicals in the crumb rubbers studied in the HHRA cited by the Town – including 33 different polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), as well as 2-mercaptobenzothiazole (2-MBT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), phthalates, volatile organic compounds (VOC), polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDD), polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDF), benzene, toluene, xylene, formaldehyde, benzothiazole, benzothiazole-2thiol, methyl isobutyl ketone, heavy metals (cadmium, cobalt, lead), and particulate matter less than 10 microns in size (PM10).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to research crumb rubber playing fields to “fill specific data gaps about the potential for human exposure to chemical constituents associated with tire crumb rubber used in synthetic turf fields”.

Crumb rubber debris from decomposing artificial turf can be found clustered in mounds. Photo courtesy of Marlene Cummings

In a July 2019 article on synthetic turf, Vancouver-based Marlene Cummings (MSc, Environmental Planning) notes that “any amount of lead in the blood risks harmful neurological, behavioural and developmental impacts. In a letter to the Park Board last April, Dr. Bruce Lanphear of SFU and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, urged Commissioners to put a moratorium on synthetic turf installation because of the presence of lead alone.” The spectre of lead contamination of Flint, Michigan’s water supply and its devastating effects on young children comes to mind, discovered many years after its elected officials implemented flawed projects.

It appears that most of these health hazards could be avoided. Crumb rubber turf is no longer leading-edge technology and is being displaced by a newer generation of materials. For example, as described in a recent article by Dustin Paré of Arizona State University, Shaw Sports Turf’s Geofill products use coconut husks and sand instead of the controversial crumb rubber.

Environmental health

Ms. Cummings has observed the following at her local Vancouver soccer fields, covered with synthetic turf in 2011. “On the edges of the two playing fields, one notices black particles blending into the grass at the edge of the asphalt walkways. On closer inspection, they turn out to be crumbs of scrap tire rubber, two or three millimeters in size. They have been carried off the field by feet, wind and rain. The natural grass growing close to the Trillium Park playing field shows signs of deterioration due to turf particles that have migrated beyond the field fence. On the west side of the field, crumb debris can be found clustered in mounds up to 18 inches wide and four inches deep.”

“Tire crumbs and plastic grass blades from the field can be seen on and around the drains waiting for the next rain to wash them down. During rains or turf-washing, the compounds and metals in crumb rubber can leach out and flow across the synthetic surface, into groundwater, and into stormwater drains that, in turn, empty into local waterways. More information is needed about the impacts to the aquatic and sediment-dwelling life in the streams and oceans.”

Here on Vancouver Island, Oak Bay High School had to cover and close its three-year-old AstroTurf field in late 2019 because it was shedding large amounts of artificial-grass strands into the environment, including nearby Bowker Creek. School District 61 concluded that the field had to be completely replaced.

Sports enthusiasts who have played on artificial turf have noticed that they track particles of the playing surface on their shoes into their vehicles and homes.

Fenced fields are locked when not used for permitted events. Photo courtesy of Marlene Cummings

We eventually eat the plastic pollution

Ms. Cummings explains: “Artificial turf also produces plastic pollution. According to North Western Europe’s KIMO Municipalities for Sustainable Seas, up to ten percent of the plastic grass fibres in synthetic turf annually degrade into microplastics through wear and tear. Again, rain can eventually carry these particles down storm drains and into marine habitat where they are consumed by fish and shellfish. In marine organisms, microplastics can lead to reduced nutritional uptake, damaged organs, and impaired reproduction. Working their way up the food chain, microplastics enter our bodies, the repercussions of which we are only beginning to understand.”

Loss of access to our community assets?

Will we able to stroll around our playing fields when they’re not in use? Will we want to? Marlene Cummings writes, “Like all synthetic playing fields in Vancouver, users require a permit, removing these community common goods from general public use.” After artificial turf has been installed on playing fields, a locked fence is typically erected to prevent unpermitted usage of the fields by the public. Ms. Cummings continues, “The rate charged to non-profit youth organizations is $26.12/hour for artificial turf compared to $2.02/hour for a natural turf or gravel field, making fees for playing on synthetic fields likely too expensive for some families.”

And when the artificial turf dies?

The Town of Qualicum Beach tells us that “the materials used in artificial turf are recyclable. At the end of the turf’s useful life, the layers can be separated out and recycled.” Ms. Cummings tells us that Vancouver Park Board staff confirm that “after a synthetic field’s average eight-year lifespan, the crumb rubber and plastic grass would likely be deposited in a landfill.” Tough call QBers, who are you going to believe?

Climate change mitigation

Let’s end on a global perspective. Ms. Cummings gets the last word for now: “Synthetic turf is a lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter of 108.2 tons CO2 equivalent over 10 years, compared to a grass sport field that acts like a carbon sink to remove and store 16.9 tons CO2 equivalent over the same period. In addition, living grass can remove pollutants from the air, cool the playing surface and air above, and filter rainwater, all of which help in the fight against climate change.”

Readers are invited to provide their opinions on the value and urgency of this project.