Can’t stop, won’t stop: supporters for synthetic turf project weigh risks, clap back on no votes
One thing that everyone can agree on is that there is an urgent need to replace the 23-year-old track and field at ARHS.
The ARHS track and field facilities have been of concern and studied for a replacement for well over a decade, and in March 2022, the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee voted to move forward with a financial proposal that would address the condemned track and potential replacement of the interior field.
The School Committee, the Town of Amherst, and surrounding regional towns committed a portion of the money needed for the project, and further advocacy and support from outside sources seemed as if they would bring it to fruition. One such source is T.U.R.F., which stands for Transformative Uses for Regional Fields, which was founded by the Amherst Hurricane Boosters, Inc. in early 2022 to actively advocate and fundraise toward putting in a regulation-size synthetic field that is facing North-South.
The Town Council had agreed to allocate an additional $900,000 to repair and replace the track, adding to the Boosters’ pledge to raise upwards of one million dollars for the project.
However, at a November 21 meeting of the Amherst Town Council, concerns were raised about the turf being environmentally unfriendly and a tie vote over the project meant the motion failed.
At many of these meetings, student-athletes, parents, coaches, and community members spoke out either for or against the project. Tensions were running high.
Students such as Julia Edgerly, a junior at ARHS who participates in cross country, indoor, and outdoor track, were frustrated by the failed motion. “Our school would have better athletics if we were able to have a positive experience working out on one track together,” she said.
Sophomore Moriah Leutjen who participates in soccer and track agreed that this is “something that is very needed.” She also said this “is a good opportunity for future students.”
Although most students are in favor of the project because they have experienced the dire need for new athletic facilities, there are some community members against it.
The Amherst Board of Health voted against artificial turf citing public health concerns.
The Board of Health is responsible for four things: the protection of public health, control of disease, promotion of sanitary living conditions, and protection of the environment from damage and pollution. They have advised against the use of artificial turf.
Lauren Mills, a BOH member, said she “understood the pleas of many students and coaches for an artificial turf field.” The other members said they want everyone to be aware of warnings about the potential risks of synthetic material to the water, soil, and athletes.
Timothy Randhir, another BOH member, said “not only does synthetic turf contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, but also other plastics, microplastics, and heavy metals that will be shed as the turf degrades.”
Chair of the BOH, Nancy Gilbert, cited a 2019 study that said there is a “higher risk of injury to high school lacrosse and soccer players on artificial turf fields as opposed to grass fields.” This study was done at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Gilbert made a motion about the T.U.R.F. Project, and it was concluded that “the Amherst Board of Health does not support the installation of artificial turf in the Amherst Regional High School’s athletic field at this time.”
Those who are anti-turf tend to argue for maintaining organic grass fields instead. Several others who are against turf site concerns of Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAs) or “forever chemicals.” Town of Amherst community member Kurt Wise was among those against installing this turf field in Amherst. “The town should “plant our new playing fields with natural grass,” he said.
Eleventh grader Neil Cunniffe has been involved in the community for many years. Along with being the junior class president, Cunniffe has also played football for nine years and baseball for 13. Cunniffe is in support of the T.U.R.F. project and hopes that it can become a reality in Amherst.
“One of the fields at our school should be able to be used year-round,” he said. Cunniffe understands the pushback against turf and has been able to see arguments on both sides. “I understand that the PFAs as a chemical are very scary. But when people talk about PFAs in turf, I believe they should understand that PFAs are everywhere,” he said.
Listing the possibilities of where PFAs can be found, Cunniffe said they include fire extinguishers, dry shampoo, and beauty products. “If this chemical is a real problem, turf fields are the least of our worries,” he said.
Cunniffe is also frustrated with how long this process is taking. “Not only was this the first time this was brought up to the town council, but the meeting also took forever and nothing actually happened,” he said. “The next time, one of the town council members postponed the decision, and now I am not able to go to the last meeting which puts me in a bad spot because I want to know exactly what is happening.”
He also said, “Sometimes I feel that the outside arguments are a [distraction].”
“One was that instead of reorienting the track [because it is currently sun-facing], we could just buy sunglasses for the players. I find that absolutely stupid,” Cunniffe said. He also believes because “athletics are a huge part of our community” we must invest in them.
“This project allows the athletes to have better playing surfaces, which would allow them to be more comfortable playing on surfaces when they go to higher levels,” he said. “And I believe athletics bring a sense of community to our school district and town.”
Cunniffe has a younger sister Keira who is currently in middle school. He is hoping that she can have a positive future in athletics. “I want her to have real playable surfaces when she is in high school because I think she could play at higher levels after high school,” he said.
Finally, Cunniffe expressed appreciation for the Hurricane Boosters. “They have worked tirelessly in order to help promote this project,” he said.
ARMS and ARHS Athletic Director Victoria Dawson, currently in her fourth year in her position, is also in support of this project. Having gone to school at Amherst, she is even more familiar with the athletics at the school. “[A new track and field] would affect a lot of people in a positive way, not just athletes,” Dawson said.
Since the conditions of the athletic fields are so poor, she said, games are usually canceled when there is light rain in the forecast. “I am tired of canceling games when a majority of schools around us aren’t canceling games,” she said. Dawson said that because of this, “kids are going to have three games in a row, four games in a week, just because we couldn’t play at other times.” Cancellations cause athletes to feel let down and fill their weeks with traveling to far-away games.
Dawson does appreciate the work that everyone is putting into bringing this project about. “They’re focusing a lot of time on this,” she said.
This project has garnered a lot of public comments on both sides of the issue. The “Amherst Indy,” a community newspaper, compiled reactions in recent articles and in letters from readers. One of the responses came from John Staudenmayer who has two children; Charlotte graduated in 2021, and Patrick is currently a junior. Together, their children have been involved in cross country, soccer, track, and ultimate frisbee.
Staudenmayer is also a professor in the mathematics and statistics department at UMass. Along with many other career and degree successes, Staudenmayer was a postdoctoral fellow at the Chan Harvard School of Public Health, which was paid for by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Staudenmayer believes that the sites speaking on behalf of the PFAs found in turf fields are questionable. He said these sites “are not generally scientifically credible.”
Doing his research, Staudenmayer found one website that is credible is that of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. This website said that “to date, scientific research mostly concludes that adverse health effects from using ATF are unlikely.” Staudenmayer said we “should assess the tradeoffs without being distracted by alarming claims that are not supported by science.”
He also said “physical activity and exercise reduce cancer risks. Not improving our track and field is likely to lead to less activity by our kids.”
Stephanie Hockman, the treasurer of the Amherst Hurricane Athletic Boosters, Inc., a nonprofit organization run by volunteers, has been a crucial supporter of this project. Hockman has lived in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School district since August 2015. She currently has two children involved in Amherst athletics and academics. Matthew, an 11th-grader, participates in football, and baseball. Her daughter, Madeline, a 10th grader, currently participates in varsity soccer.
Hockman is currently a member of the T.U.R.F. project committee. She said she is “a strong advocate for the immediate remediation of the current condemned track and undersized, overused, and inability to be maintained grass field.”
She also said we are “losing students to other public and private schools and new families to the community are choosing other school districts.”
Hockman is involved in this project because of her high school and college experiences growing up in Oklahoma. The skills she learned on soccer fields, basketball courts, and track were brought to her adulthood and were the baseline for her successes in college and career.
“When we moved to Amherst in 2015, I realized that sports were not the center of the curriculum at ARPS like they had been in Oklahoma. As we’ve stayed in the community and my children have become more involved in sports, I’ve not seen the same sense of pride in the facilities as I had growing up,” she said.
Hockman understands others’ arguments. “I respect everyone’s opinions. However, I feel that those that are against the synthetic turf option because of PFAs are cherry-picking, and not using the most up-to-date information,” she said.
She also said “the Boosters did our diligence and will be using all-natural, coconut fiber infill with an overlay turf made of no-PFAs blades produced in no-PFAs extrusion process. I would like those that are worried about the dangers of PFAs to look at the evidence more clearly to see that what we are proposing is not the same.”
Hockman thinks when people think of PFAs, they should think of household items. Hockman said “if PFAs are their biggest fear, then they need to consider those found in non-stick pans that cook food, the to-go containers and pizza boxes that we eat out of, or the raincoats we wear. It is more likely to ingest PFAs in those ways than through a synthetic turf field of coconut.”
Hockman also said, “I’m sure our student-athletes don’t plan to eat the grass blades, which are also not made with PFAs under our proposed materials.”
Hockman said there are four groups affected by this project. “Having an almost-year-round option that can be used for games, and some practices will help teams hone skills needed to compete against other schools that can practice on turf,” she said.
Second, “the next group affected is the ARPS student body, staff, and athletic department.” Since this will make such a difference for the community, “It will instill a bigger sense of pride for all students at ARPS,” Hockman added.
Third, she said that putting in the track and field would “help the ARPS athletic director with scheduling of games and practices with another option.”
Lastly, Hockman said that it would help Amherst and surrounding businesses. “By having the new athletic facility, we will be able to attract and retain families in the area,” she said.
Hockman only has one fear for this project: “that it won’t get done.”
She believes that some of the arguments being made seem contradictory. “I find it interesting that they wanted to potentially limit what was available for our students, both to hone skills needed for college scholarships and for the Amherst businesses in the form of revenue from state and regional competitions,” she said. “All of these contribute to the tax base. And The Town Council did not question [similar] fields being put on college property,” including a college “that does not pay taxes.”
Hockman is frustrated with delays in moving the project forward but said the Boosters are “refocused and re-energized to do what is best for ARPS and the students.”
The next steps for this project are the Boosters continuing to raise money. The School Committee will meet again on January 16, 2023, to determine if option three, which involves the use of artificial turf, reorienting the field, and a new eight-lane track, can still move forward based on fundraising status and community support.