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Norwalk Council greenlights latest artificial turf field, for BMHS softball players

Artifical turf at Skyline Park in Brookline, Mass., which opened in 2008. Norwalk will install CoolPlay at Brien McMahon High School, not a topping of crumb rubber. (Photo by Flickr user Josh Graciano.)

NORWALK, Conn. — The city is going ahead with artificial turf for the new softball field at Brien McMahon High School, even if some Common Council members are not quite cool with the idea of CoolPlay.

“The reason why this item is off consent this evening is because a number of us on Council have begun to question whether turf fields are as safe as they have been represented to us to be. There seems to be conflicting research in the field to determine the levels of toxicity that these fields possess,” Council member Lisa Shanahan (D-District E) said Tuesday.”

The Council went on to approve a contract with Field Turf USA to install CoolPlay at BMHS for a maximum $260,487.90, on a 10-0-3 vote, with several Council members promising to take a hard look at future projects.

Artificial turf has drawn pushback before; a year ago, Shanahan issued the sole no vote against the turf for the West Rocks Middle School soccer complex, while stressing that her own children played sports their entire lives.

“I absolutely love field sports, and especially for young women,” she said Tuesday.

But Democrats had had a long discussion in their Monday evening caucus and she agreed to represent some of the views expressed, she said.

“The crumb rubber on fields are said to contain petrol chemical products that are carcinogenic if they’re consumed,” Shanahan said. “These small pieces of rubber migrate off the fields and shoes and then people’s clothes to people’s homes. They might run off the fields in heavy rains into our water wells and into our waterways. The chemicals that are used to maintain the fields also contain some toxic chemicals that can get into our waterways, and really even into our children’s skins through cuts and bruises. The turf fields themselves are said to be more dangerous for athletes in that there’s a reportedly higher incidence of concussions and knee injuries on turf fields rather than grass fields.”

She said, “Even more concerning perhaps to me is that we’re taking some of our most precious green open spaces and covering them in plastic, which has detrimental impacts by creating heat islands close to schools, water management issues, and not to mention environmental risk to our local wildlife.”

And then there’s the disposal problem when the field reaches the end of its useful life, she said.

“I cannot vote yes to install an additional turf field in Norwalk until we do more research to reassure ourselves that these fields do not pose a serious risk to our children to our water wells into our waterways,” Shanahan said.

David Heuvelman (D-District A) said he agreed with the bulk of Shanahan’s statement.

“I feel that it is it would be irresponsible of us to move to vote yes,” Heuvelman said. “Because I have voted in the past for other turf fields, I’m going to be abstaining tonight. And moving forward, I think that we have to take a serious look at what we are doing, what these fields are made of, and what we are doing to our environment by the use of these products.”

Darlene Young (D-District B), chair of the Recreation and Parks Committee, emphasized that the BMHS field is the culmination of a 2-year process, including public hearings.

“As we’ve shared, you know, in our caucus meeting, there haven’t been any other reporting on the state level or federal level yet with the with the products that we’re choosing to put into the field,” Young said. “And actually, we changed the material based on the response from the community, it might not be the best choice, but that is where we are right now.”

Not an easy decision, but the softball players have been waiting a long time, she said.

Diana Révolus (D-District B) cited her own naivete on the matter as a new Council member and her status as a “tree hugger” in explaining why she’d abstain.

Council member Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said that in previous decisions, “We had been reassured by you know, the current research that all the universities that have medical schools are using the same type of turf, and that it had been deemed safe.”

But, she said, “There are more and more articles that we’re reading that expressed concerns about the turf fields. And so now I am going to support this tonight. I think it’s important for our athletes, for our families who very much want this and you know, to have fields to play on. But moving forward, I think we just have a lot more work to do and a lot more research to do.”

“I will be supporting the approval of this turf field,” Council member Greg Burnett (D-At Large) said. “As I do believe that it’s greatly needed to advance the activities at Brien McMahon High School, but I also support taking a pause, taking a pause to do more research, more evaluation, obtain more knowledge.”

Like others, he lauded Interim Recreation and Parks Department Director Ken Hughes for all the information he provided.

George Tsiranides (D-District D) and Kadeem Roberts (D-District A) also supported the turf installation.

“Until something even better comes along and hopefully it will, I know Ken will always keep his ear to the ground and keep us apprised of any things that are coming along. But we do owe it to the parents and the students that I’ve been waiting for this field for my four years (on the Council), I know for sure. Some even longer,” Tsiranides said.

“Something like that is opportunity for the youth, you know, and that’s big to me, being a future educator as well,” Roberts said. “So I think that is that’s absolutely, you know, a need for these women. Also, I do understand that 100% agree as well, we got do our due diligence when it comes to these fields, guys. It’s definitely important.”

Thomas Keegan (R-District D), Tom Livingston (D-District E), Dominique Johnson (D-At Large), Manny Langella (D-At Large), Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large), Burnett, Young, Smyth, Roberts and Tsiranides voted in favor.  Heuvelman, Shanahan and Révolus abstained.

District C Democrats John Kydes and George Theodoridis were absent from the Zoom call.

11 comments

Audrey Cozzarin September 20, 2021 at 9:08 am

Thank you, Lisa Shanahan and David Heuvelman, for voting No to artificial turf at BMHS. At a time when our home, the earth, is suffering from human activity, we keep laying asphalt and plastic/rubber in large swaths adding more heat and toxins to our city’s environment.

Common sense would tell us that we’d want the healthiest experiences for our children. Overall, artificial turf might be convenient and the range of concerns (and scientific data) might not be alarming, but wouldn’t we want a truly safe environment for school kids? I recall playing on grass fields and there didn’t seem to be any issue.

It’s a bad vote on the part of the Common Council to once again favor artificial turf fields for our kids. I am very disappointed in how the Council often votes against the best interest of public and environmental health. I believe it’s the competitive urge in many people that push us as a community to take risks we don’t need to take, especially for our convenience, entertainment, and what we deem “important” at the expense of the earth. We can live in denial.

May all people enjoy the abundance around us, in peace and with respect for all life, animal vegetable and mineral. Without the health of Mother Earth, we have nothing.

John O'Neill September 20, 2021 at 10:02 am

I’d like to congratulate the Common Council members who voted to spend money on a project that’s a complete waste of money. They’re not paying attention to the changing demographics in Norwalk. They’re not paying attention to the lack of interest at McMahon for Girls Softball..You mean to tell me there’s not a more pressing item that we can allocate this money for? Like maybe a Math or Science Teacher?? Maybe someone can comment on exactly why this was pushed thru.
Title IX ?- That’s a bunch of crap because there’s almost no interest in Girls Softball at McMahon…
Congratulations to the Advocates for this project — They’ve proven there are suckers born everyday. It’s a shame those suckers are responsible for our tax money.

Erica Kipp September 20, 2021 at 11:14 am

Artificial turf fields emit gases that can be inhaled, especially by players on the field, our children. Turf fields are generally 10 to 15 degrees hotter than the ambient temperature which increases and accelerates the chances that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) will “off-gas,” or leach into the air. And because these fields are laid out on compacted soil, they are harder and lead to more injuries. Not to mention all the environmental issues. I wish the city would consult medical professionals and scientists when making these impactful decisions.

Diane Lauricella September 20, 2021 at 4:58 pm

I am on record attempting to get the City of Norwalk to properly evaluate both sides of this issue with a neutral expert. They exist if you take time to look.

This Artificial Turf field is another short-sighted project…….long-term impacts are assured.

In past, I asked Recreation and Parks former Directors Mike Mocciae and Nick Roberts, Interim Director Ken Hughes AND our Health Director to find a neutral party expert, not the “experts” from the Turf Industry itself, to evaluate the current studies readily available about the dangers (Off-gassing of infill and plastic materials in player breathing zone; carry-out of infill material in nose, cuts, to cars, homes and clothes; temperature; impact injuries due to packed surface; polluted runoff after rain; and the ultimate waste disposal costs of use of Artificial Turf (AT)) and the benefits of AT use.

Stay tuned.

Bryan Meek September 20, 2021 at 5:07 pm

Turf everything, then we won’t have to hear excuses on why the grass doesn’t get cut or raked like it is supposed to.

Tysen Canevari September 20, 2021 at 5:12 pm

Great job common council.People complained about West Rocks project and it came out spectacular. All the time it is occupied with kids and adults enjoying the outdoors. No one has grown a third head yet in the United States from turf gases, rubber, etc…. Cmon people

Mike O'Reilly September 20, 2021 at 5:56 pm

In addition to toxicity and injuries two other issues to consider. Flooding and will they be removing mature trees at the field. The council has to reach out to surrounding towns specifically Fairfield and discuss best practices for field maintenance.
Great article in Sunday’s New York Times pg. 16 front section “After City Rehabs Park With Turf, Battle Starts.

Could not find it online now sorry

Skip Hagerty September 21, 2021 at 12:12 am

These politicians debate that a turf field may pose some potential health risk and create a heat island yet while sitting idly by as Norwalk becomes one huge apartment complex with big box stores and a new mall. As a result traffic congestion is awful, our decrepit schools are being overwhelmed with kids, and the overall quality of life in Norwalk continues to decline. By the way, my four kids all play on turf fields and I think it’s great. I have a hard time believing that these turf fields pose more of a health risk to the kids than them sitting home, drinking sugary soda, and playing video games all day does.

Ken Hughes September 21, 2021 at 6:57 am

To think that myself, The Rec and Parks Commission, the Planning Commission and the Common Council vote blindly to install turf fields is wrong. Collectively we have done hours of research, weighing all factors including cost, staffing levels, maintenance and longevity before any decisions are made. I have spoken to Rec and Parks Directors throughout the State regarding turf fields and seeing what works, and what doesn’t work. Unfortunately there is no definitive research, either way, stating turf is bad, or turf is good. For every independent study stating turf is good, I can produce one stating turf is bad. The fact of the matter is, we have listened to the public, and changed how we install turf fields. A downfall of turf, which I agree with, is the heat produced by the black infill, and the possible off-gassing. To that end, we installed the cool play material, which is an encapsulated rubber. The difference in field temperature is amazing, and IMO, worth the $40K upgrade for the BMHS softball field. Being the rubber is now encapsulated, off-gassing is not a perceived issue. Turf suppliers have a large markup for more natural infill material (coconut fiber, husks, etc.) so it would be to their benefit to sell these materials. Unfortunately, the instal costs, as well as future maintenance is something we cannot handle. Imagine the outcry when we are unable to maintain a 2 million plus turf field!! Over 90% of all new turf fields are installed with the original crumb rubber infill. Norwalk is already ahead of the game using CoolPlay.

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