OPINION: Underhill Field — Board of Education Should Take Time to Consider the Options 

by Jane Conrad
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Editor’s note: Jane Conrad is a former Director of Programming at Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, and was a Seth Boyden parent and gardening teacher from 2002-2012. See this article and this opinion piece for recent information on the issue of turf fields in the South Orange-Maplewood School District. See a previous opinion piece by Conrad published on Village Green here.

To the Editors,

Whenever the school board expends public funds, they bear the important responsibility of choosing honorable contractors and quality products, and safeguarding the public interest.

In my opinion there is a heightened need for this due diligence when considering artificial turf contractors and materials.  This is so not only because of the large dollar amounts involved, but also because of the unregulated nature of materials used, the historically high rate of premature field failure, complex warranty requirements, and questionable contractor disposal methods.

Though we all want to see kids on the field, this vetting process cannot be rushed.

Here are some of the issues I hope the Board considers:

1)        What is the litigation history of the proposed vendor?  Have they provided faulty field components in the past, and what was the outcome of this?  FieldTurf, for example, from 2006 to 2012 knowingly sold 1,428 defective fields in New Jersey and elsewhere in the U.S., and lied about it.  (See Christopher Baxter and Michael Stanmyre, “The 100 Yard Deception,” New Jersey Advance Media http://fieldturf.nj.com).  Most of these fields were paid for with public money.  Litigation is ongoing.

2)        Are these vendors promoting dangerous or untested materials such as artificial turf infill?  For example, crystalline silica is a known carcinogen; silica dust can lead to silicosis of the lungs.  Yet because of a loophole in U.S. law which protects adult workers but NOT children in recreational settings, unscrupulous vendors have promoted using silica sand in artificial turf fields.  Cork fields typically use huge quantities of sand as ballast.  Vendors who claim they will supply river sand instead should be doubted since supplies of this are low worldwide.

For any infill material, the Board should require peer-reviewed articles (not industry puff pieces) attesting to the safety of respirable particles.  Are vendors willing to be held liable if infill dust proves unsafe?

3)        Are field users, and the District, willing to observe the many, many restrictions on artificial turf field use, and requirements for regular field care and record-keeping, necessary to uphold the product warranties offered by vendors?  (Is a new field covered by warranty if the stone base is old, not re-engineered?).  Many fields fail prematurely, and turf companies are experts at avoiding having to pay for field replacement.  The fine print in warranties is their best weapon.

If users, and the District, decide to ignore warranty restrictions, they cannot be surprised if fields fail, companies won’t pay, and fields are once again left in an unplayable state for a long time.

4)        Can vendors guarantee that all 500,000 pounds of the old field rug and infill will be recycled?  If we require legal proof that the old field has been 100% recycled before issuing final payment, are vendors still interested?

Artificial turf companies pay lip service to the idea of recycling old turf fields, because parents claim to care about this issue.  However, companies are counting on people not looking too closely at what they actually do.  In reality, almost all turf fields end up in landfills or incinerators (or even dumped by the side of the road) where they add to water and air pollution in poorer communities.  This is unconscionable.

This is just a fraction of the due diligence which the school board owes the community. These are complex issues, and nobody should go into negotiation with these companies in the mistaken belief that they have our best interest at heart.  They do not.  They just want to make a sale, as they did in 2007 when they told us our current field would last 15 years.

There is an alternative to this unpleasant cycle of demanding a huge plastic item, wearing it out and dumping it in a poor community:

Let the Board solicit bids to return Underhill to grass.

Natural grass fields can develop problems.  But grass doesn’t create million-dollar “emergencies” or year-long delays.  There is usually something normal people can do to make the problem better.  If Underhill were grass, kids could be playing safely on it now.

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