Even before the nearly two dozen people testified about the pros and cons of tire crumb rubber artificial turf being installed by the Edmonds School District at the former Woodway High School, the Edmonds City Council unanimously voted to postpone a decision on the matter.
Following a motion by Councilmember Tom Mesaros, councilmembers decided to wait two weeks to vote on whether to pursue an interlocal agreement under which the city would schedule, operate and maintain the fields.
Councilmembers agreed that they wanted more time to study all sides of the issue, which has been generating community debate since last spring. Both councilmembers and staff noted that the decision could have further ramifications for city-school district relations down the road; in particular, the city is currently negotiating with the school district to purchase Civic Center Stadium, located between 6th and 7th Avenues, a site that is heavily used for local activities including the annual Fourth of July fireworks and the A Taste of Edmonds festival.
City Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Carrie Hite told the council that the issue comes down to the city’s role as a partner — not only with the School District, but with the Verdant Health Commission and the State of Washington, both of which provided funding for the fields project. In addition, the city has had “a longstanding and successful partnership” with the school district to use fields for city programs, including the Meadowdale Playfields, the Madrona K-8 field and Edmonds Elementary.
Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas noted that she and fellow Councilmembers Diane Buckshnis and Mike Nelson met with School District Superintendent Nick Brossoit Monday, and Brossoit “made it very clear that if we do not enter into this partnership with the school district, that the school district will no longer consider the City of Edmonds a partner in this — and potentially other — items,” Fraley-Monillas said. “We will not have any say over these fields and that includes scheduling them, what occurs when neighbors have issues — I mean they (the neighbors) will have to take it totally up with the school district if there are problems.”
That led Councilmember Joan Bloom to comment that “we are being strong-armed by one person — the Superintendent of the School District — and four school board members. That’s five people that are holding us hostage and saying that if we don’t enter into this ILA (interlocal agreement) with them and use the product that many, many people think is hazardous, that they’re not going to cooperate with us in future endeavors.”
Councilmember Lora Petso added that she was hopeful that all parties would come to the table to talk about the possibility of using a different type of artificial turf — which parents opposed to the crumb rubber surface have been pushing for — as well as giving the council control over future turf field installations in Edmonds.
Crumb rubber turf is used widely in sport fields both statewide and nationally, and experts say that currently available research indicates the material is safe to play on. But parents and students attending Edmonds Heights K-12 School, which is located next to the planned project, along with neighbors living near the fields, have been raising health and environmental questions after recent anecdotal reports of cancer clusters among soccer goalies who have played on the crumb rubber surface.
For several months, project opponents have been urging the school district to delay action on the project jointly sponsored by the district, the City of Edmonds and the Verdant Health Commission. There have also been issues raised about the environmental impacts of the sports complex. The Pilchuck Audubon Society has said the fields are a nesting area for resident and migratory birds and also noted that the school district – as the lead agency for the project – did not develop a plan for mitigating the runoff of potential contaminants from the crumb rubber into local creeks and eventually, into Puget Sound.
In addition, a neighbor living the project has filed appeal to overturn the Edmonds City Council’s land use decision regarding the property.
Hite noted that the school district has been using tire crumb rubber turf on its fields since 2001, and “has assured the city that it has done its due diligence” in researching its safety.” The school district has already begun work to install two fields at the former Woodway High School site, and “will move forward whether we sign an ILA or not,” Hite said.
Hite then introduced Elizabeth Black, a consultant hired by the school district to review current research on crumb rubber turf safety. Black noted that while the district had suggested a total of 32 studies, she expanded her review beyond those, focusing on both actual (confirmed by science) and theoretical health risks of the tire crumb rubber. Actual health risks included the fact that the turf gets very hot and can also cause friction burns when athletes fall on it. The theoretical risks, Black said, are more difficult to prove due to a lack of sufficient research. “There is a need for additional data,” she said.
Studies acknowledge that the tire crumb rubber contains “hazardous constituents,” but what has not been demonstrated is that there is an exposure pathway by which the constituents can enter the body and do damage,” she said.
Following Black’s summary, the council moved into the public hearing phase. The speakers — nearly evenly divided between those supporting the project (including youth coaches and parents who reiterated the community’s need for more turf fields during the Northwest’s rainy months) and opponents (many of whom said they supported artificial turf fields, just not those made of tire crumb rubber.
Also offering testimony were two elected officials — School Board President Diana White, who said she was proud of the board’s 4-1 decision to support the project after vetting the issue, and State Senator Marilyn Chase (D-32nd District) who reiterated her plan to address crumb rubber turf safety during the 2016 legislative session.