The B.C. Brief: Impervious to God, Man & the Environment. By Guive Mirfendereski, SynTurf.org, Newton, Mass. February 27, 2008.
Boston College has two campuses. The main campus is located in the upscale Chestnut Hill area that includes parts of Newton, Boston (Brighton and West Roxbury) and Brookline. On this campus is located the Alumni Stadium, which is the home of the BC Eagles football team. The field is artificial turf. BC’s campus in Newton proper houses its law school, a few dorms, and some undergraduate programs. It also has ample parking, which is a definite plus if you were attending BC Law School. The northern part of that campus is the site of a hockey field, a soccer field and the Quonset Hut, which is an indoor recreational facility. The hockey field is artificial turf. The soccer field, bordering on a woodsy area, is still natural grass. One college and two artificial turf fields -- each of which was built without a proper permitting process by the affected municipal zoning authorities. And now, Boston College has decided that it really needs to add three more artificial turf fields to the landscape. This time the victim is Brighton proper.
According to the BC Institutional Master Plan,the Athletics Center at the north end of the Brighton Campus will include: (1) a baseball field with 1,500 spectator seats, lighted, with a synthetic surface; (2) a softball field with 500 seats, synthetic surface and lights; and (3) a multipurpose field located on top of a field house structure, with a synthetic surface and lights. Oh joy! What is the reason for this and other planned athletic facilities in Brighton? Oh, well, in case you have been under a rock all this time – “Boston College’s membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference has increased its need for larger and more sophisticated athletic facilities.” Naturally, “Great universities need great facilities to help achieve their ambitions.” Where is it written that BC should have a pig’s share of artificial turf fields in the Boston area, with the largest carbon footprint than any of its competitors, just to serve sports at the expense of the environment? The irony of all this is that the 65-acre area that will house BC’s abominable artificial turf fields was the former St. John's Seminary property, which the school purchased in 2004-2007 from the Archdiocese of Boston as a part of the Archdiocese’s efforts to raise money to pay off for the damage caused by a series of crimes against nature committed by the Catholic clergy.
In December 2007, BC submitted its "Institutional Master Plan Notification Form" to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) for review. It did not take long before grassroots organizations, nonprofits and individual residents, who deeply cared about Brighton, began questioning the wisdom of the Plan’s artificial turf fields. Letter after letter was sent to the BRA raising questions about the environmental and health risks associated with artificial turf fields. Speaker after speaker raised the same concerns in public meetings. Many of the letters and minutes of the meetings will be made available shortly in the form of an appendix that the BRA will post on the web.
The BRA heard the message loud and clear. In an unprecedented move in the annals of development review process anywhere in Massachusetts, the BRA has asked the planner/developer (BC) to provide documentation and/or investigate further the potential impacts of artificial turf on the environment and people's health. The pertinent part of BRA’s "Scoping Determination," issued on February 21, 2008, states:
Synthetic Surfaces.The IMP shall provide additional information about the proposed artificial surfaces to be used, and, at the request of the BRA, shall consult with relevant city agencies on the potential environmental and health impacts of these surfaces.
This is a welcome first step in assessing the artificial turf components of the development plan. When it is all said and done, it should be an easy call for BRA to nix the turf component of the plan in favor of natural grass playing fields. The heat island effect, carbon footprint, toxicity of crumb rubber granules from used tires, as-yet-undetermined health and environmental risk of thermoplastic substitutes for rubber, migration of granules and broken up polygrass blades, foot fixation injuries, infections due to abrasion or turf burn, and problems with the disposal of the worn out turf carpet in the state’s solid waste management scheme all argue against artificial turf fields. In the context of the BRA’s other concerns, the most significant issue with the fields will be its combined sewer overflow quotient.
The purveyors of turf fields have managed to convince the unsuspecting public and policymakers that the turf field is a pervious surface, because it drains. That is a half-truth and, in fact, is a half-truth that is only half-skin deep. The fact is an artificial turf field is an impervious surface no matter how well it allows for water to disappear from its surface.
First, definition: The most common definition of an impervious surface is “any areas that are paved, covered, compacted, or limit infiltration of stormwater. This includes buildings, roofs, decks, patios, and paved, gravel, or crushed stone driveways, parking areas, and walkways.” A more elaborate definition of the term is: “any surface that prevents rain (water) from infiltrating into the soil, thereby resulting in runoff. Examples of impervious surfaces include rooftops, roadways, parking lots, and buildings.” A more sophisticated definition of an impervious surface is: "those areas that prevent or impede the infiltration of stormwater into the soil as it entered in natural conditions prior to development. Impervious areas include, but are not limited to, rooftops, sidewalks, walkways, patio areas, driveways, parking lots, storage areas, compacted gravel surfaces, awnings and other fabric or plastic coverings, and other surfaces that prevent or impede the natural infiltration of stormwater runoff which existed prior to development."
The Massachusetts GIS website (http://www.mass.gov/mgis) tracks the state’s impervious surface(http://www.mass.gov/mgis/impervious_surface.htm). The reason why it and other state GIS offices around the country do the same is to ensure that society keeps an environmentally sound ratio of pervious and impervious surface allocation. What this intends to achieve is to regulate the amount of stormwater runoff into our sewer and storm drainage systems and at the same time allow for water to seep deep into the soil, to recharge the subsoil water table.
On February 27, 2008, SynTurf.org inquired at Mass. GIS as to why artificial turf field is not listed in its classificationofimpervious surfaces. GIS responded “I would hazard a guess that they are indeed pervious (water runs through them as opposed to being shed off them-at the surface) … A cursory look at a field in my neighborhood, which I know to be artificial, has the same values as contiguous areas that are real grass.”
The claim of pervious-ness of artificial turf is an illusion. True, irrigational water, rainfall or melting snow do get absorbed into the carpet and drain from the surface. The question is where does the water end up? After it seeps below the carpet and the matting, it is collected by the perforated underground field drainage pipes and released into the municipal stormwater or sewer connections. In some localities it may end up in the brooks, swales or the woods. Because the water off the turf does not recharge the subsoil, the turf cannot therefore be a “pervious” surface.
What does any of this have to do with the BRA’s “Scoping Determination” about BC’s master plan?
First, under the heading of Stormwater Retention/Treatment/Reuse and Groundwater Recharge, the BRA is asking BC to “go beyond the minimum requirements related to stormwater runoff. In particular, the new developments … should set a goal of reducing stormwater discharge from the sites into the storm sewers, not simply avoiding any additional runoff. This goal should be considered in conjunction with strategies for reuse of retained stormwater and strategies for groundwater recharge.” Artificial turf fields and other synthetic surfaces add to combined sewer overflows and certainly deprive earth of any recharge that would be coming to it were there not a synthetic turf or rubber surface covering the ground.
Second, the BRA is asking BC to indulge Brighton with a “well-considered program of landscape design” that will “create a high-quality aesthetic realm” and “also enhance regional biodiversity, help mitigate air pollution, reduce heating and air conditioning costs and associated energy consumption, reduce water consumption, and reduce stormwater runoff and water pollution.” With a carbon footprint that equals more than 800 trees per acre of turf in a ten-year period, artificial turf fields do not address any of these points, while natural grass fields do help the environment on each point.
Third, the BRA is positing that “[s]ustainability should be a primary consideration in the design of the campus open space system as a whole as well as the design of individual spaces.” Artificial turf fields that have to be replaced every ten years or so do not amount to a “sustainable” feature. They are affordable, but they are not environmentally sustainable.
The only flaw in the BRA’s scoping determination as to turf fields is that it requires BC to “consult” with city and state agencies. Neither the city nor state agencies, from the Executive Secretary of Energy and Environment Affairs to the Department of Public Health, nor their city equivalents, is equipped to examine any aspect of the environmental nor health risks associated with turf fields. The information that is supplied by the turf industry is either biased or simply does not ask or answer the right questions. However, there are studies that are emerging and they are beginning to paint a scary picture as to the uncertainties of the effect of turf on human health. The environmental impact of turf fields is already established. The BRA should require BC and Boston should ask the state to commission toxicological studies of artificial turf fields by independent research organizations. There should be a site-specific environmental impact assessment submitted with each turf field proposal anywhere in the state.
The BRA’s commendable approach to BC’s turf project is not shared by the City of Newton. While the BC plan does not speak of any additional artificial turf fields on its Newton campus, the City has let BC install one without the slightest interest for the environment and human health. The permitting for the hockey field appears most murky, with no opportunity for public comment. In fact, the installations at LaSalle College and the YMCA, too, have been done without any regard to the public interest in this matter. There is now a plan in the works to install several artificial turf fields in the middle of a wetlands area on the grounds of the Newton South High School, with no regard for the adverse impact of the proposed fields as to the environment and human health.
Newton is completely oblivious when it comes to the enforcing its own impervious surface standards when it comes to artificial turf fields. But the City is quick to jump on BC about the size of the college’s parking lot. On February 5, 2008, Newton’s Director of Planning and Development laid out the City’s concerns about the aspects of the BC master plan that affect Newton. In reference to the work proposed for the Newton campus, the director stated: “the Planning Department has an ongoing concern with the amount of uninterrupted impervious surfaces (for parking) at this campus and recommends that the College consider reducing impervious surfaces whenever possible.” This recommendation would be more persuasive if the City could show that it was against the installation of the hockey field (an impervious surface) right next to the northern edge of the school’s parking lots!
. http://www.vhb.com/bostoncollege/imp. If you need more information, please contact Gerald Autler, Senior Project Manager/Planner, Boston Redevelopment Authority, One City Hall Square, Boston, MA 02201, Phone (617) 918-4438.