Protest against crumb rubber turf fields fails to sway School Board

Students, parents and community members protest against the Edmonds School District's plans to install crumb rubber turf fields at the former Woodway High School site. The Board of Directors voted to install crumb rubber fields during its Tuesday meeting. (Photo by David Pan)
Students, parents and community members protest against the Edmonds School District’s plans to install crumb rubber turf fields at the former Woodway High School site prior to Tuesday’s School Board meeting. The Board voted in favor of crumb rubber fields during the meeting (Photo by David Pan)

The opponents of crumb rubber turf fields were out in full force at Tuesday’s Edmonds School District Board of Directors meeting.

A group of about 50 children, parents and community members lined both sides of the entrance to the district’s Educational Service Center, where Board Members gathered to vote on the artificial turf field project at the former Woodway High School site in Edmonds. Inside, speaker after speaker, including a state senator, urged the Board to postpone its decision, consider the potential health risks associated with crumb rubber fields, use a different form of infill rather than the crumb rubber and ditch the artificial turf for natural grass. Speakers also were concerned about the impact of the crumb rubber on the city’s drinking water supplies and about the lost educational opportunities associated with the natural grass fields.

But in the end, the Board voted 4-1 in favor of the crumb rubber/recycled tires turf fields, which are part of the planned athletic complex at the former Woodway High School. Board Member April Nowak was the lone dissenter with Board President Diana White and Board Members Gary Noble, Kory DeMun and Ann McMurray voting in favor. Even after their decision, Board Members acknowledged that the issue isn’t going away and they expressed their appreciation to community members for bringing their concerns to the district. Other crumb rubber tuft fields in the district are scheduled to be replaced next year and beyond.

“I really truly do appreciate the people who have spoken,” Noble said.

Noble noted that all four high schools in the district have crumb rubber turf fields and the Board approved those fields without knowing that there were issues with crumb rubber. The interest in the Woodway field project resulted in Board Members receiving extensive information on the subject from the public. As a result, an industrial hygienist was hired by the district to review studies and a two-hour School Board study session devoted to the issue was held in April, Noble noted.

“Public input on this had a large bearing on the process, even if the end result didn’t come out the way you wanted it to,” Noble said.

McMurray agreed with Noble that the public brought the issue to the forefront through their activism.

“The issue is now on our radar,” McMurray said.

While in her opinion the state of evidence does not point to a definite heightened risk for crumb rubber fields, McMurray said that “this process is continuing. Information is continuing.”

In a statement she read before the vote, White said that the Board’s priority is the health, well-being and education of the district’s students and that the district staff had done a good job of fielding questions from the public on the project.

“The Board has confidence in the process and the research conducted over the past months in regard to the former Woodway field project,” White said.

White cited the need for more playable sports fields for the district’s 4,000 student-athletes and the important benefits of extracurricular activities, which include higher grades, better attendance and more self-confidence and social skills.

In addressing concerns expressed by students from Edmonds Heights K-12 School, White said, “Do I serve a small population of students from Edmonds Heights and Scriber or do I help serve the 4,000 student-athletes and community who will use this field to its fullest potential and the answer is easy for me.”

The Board’s decision didn’t sit well with Laura Johnson, a parent of three students at Edmonds Heights, who asked the Board earlier in the meeting to provide children with the safest field possible.

“I’m really disappointed. My school district didn’t listen to the community,” Johnson said. “They didn’t listen to the parents. They just went the status quo. They’re not able to think outside the box. They’re not able to be proactive.”

Edmonds Heights teacher Erin Zackey wasn’t surprised by the decision, based on the Board’s previous vote for a crumb rubber field for Edmonds Stadium.

“I’m thoroughly disappointed,” she said. “This is the wrong decision for the school. I think it was a bad choice.”

Both Zackey and Johnson faulted the district for a lack of engagement with the community about the project.

“They could have done a better job of informing our community,” Zackey said.

Zackey believes that the fields at the former Woodway High School definitely need to be improved but she’ was surprised the district was planning to replace the natural grass with artificial turf fields.

A resolution to use Nike grind, ground-up sneakers from the company’s shoe recycling program, failed 4-1 with Nowak the only Board Member in favor. A third alternative in which the rubber was coated did not draw any support from the Board.

Nowak said that the Nike grind seemed to be a better solution, especially since it doesn’t have the specific carcinogens that are present in the crumb rubber. “It feels like a better move,” Nowak said.

Other speakers also voiced support for alternatives to crumb rubber.

“I think it is wise to experiment with other surfaces to learn what works best in the Edmonds School District,” Maggie Pinson said.

White wasn’t in favor of using one of the other alternative infills, saying that they were untested, not common to the Pacific Northwest and didn’t have a sufficient warranty.

Maralyn Chase, a State Senator from the 32nd District, was one of those who suggested the Board delay a decision on the project. Chase told the Board that no state agency currently regulates the crumb rubber product because it is a recycled product and the state doesn’t regulate recycled products. No agency regulates the content of the crumb rubber, the installation, maintenance or disposal of the product, though Chase is hoping that the state legislature will change that. Chase added that it is possible that crumb rubber might be regulated under the children’s safe product act.

“A lot of the content in the crumbs are prohibited,” Chase said.

Chase added she is hoping the state will fund a study on crumb rubber.

“I urge you to put this vote off until we get more information,” Chase said. “There’s more information coming over and over. Every day we get new information.”

Nowak initially proposed that the Board wait a year to make a decision on the artificial turf fields but her motion was later amended to six months. Nowak wanted to use the time to further study, not only the safety issues associated with crumb rubber, but also to address traffic concerns and community engagement on the project. Nowak said that new information is coming out on crumb rubber and that installing the new fields was not an issue that the Board needed to rush.

“Let’s just kind of take a step back and look at the science,” Nowak said. “Let’s take a bit more time on this to make the right decision.”

Nowak’s motion did not pass with DeMun the only other Board Member to support it and White, Noble and McMurray opposed to the delay.

Noble’s principal concerns were a potential escalation in the costs of the project and his desire to know that any delay would not jeopardize any of the funding from the district’s partners in the project — City of Edmonds, Verdant Health Commission and a grant from the state. White said she didn’t think there were going to be any answers on the safety issue in a year or even in five years.

“I feel like we need to make a decision right now and it’s tough,” White said.

– By David Pan

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