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MCA wants county to mull options for synthetic fields

McLean organization has been concerned about issue since 2018

Fairfax County officials should consider alternatives to crumb-rubber infill for synthetic-turf fields, prevent toxic chemicals from them from entering local waterways and monitor what happens to those surfaces once their useful lives have ended, according to a resolution passed Feb. 1 by the McLean Citizens Association (MCA) board of directors.

The resolution called on the county’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council (EQAC) to investigate the county’s reviews of health and environmental risks associated with the fields. County officials in 2017 deemed crumb-rubber infill an acceptable field surface and MCA’s resolution asks EQAC to re-evaluate that decision and consider possible alternative surfaces.

The county in 2013 decided against renewing a task force that had performed similar functions, MCA’s resolution read. The resolution asks for that task force to be reconstituted promptly.

The resolution also recommends county officials implement a tracking system to determine whether, and to what extent, synthetic-turf fields that are being replaced are recycled or sent to landfills.

The fields typically wear out and need to be replaced every eight to 10 years, resulting in a “significant waste-management challenge and source of microplastic and toxic pollution in the environment,” MCA’s resolution read.

The MCA board passed the resolution with a few tweaks and little opposition.

“It’s kind of heavy-handed, in my opinion,” said MCA board member Raj Mehra. “Aren’t you going to be imposing a lot of additional costs to the Little League or the other folks [who have] invested money in building synthetic-turf fields?”

County officials could decide in favor of surfaces other than crumb-rubber infill for future fields or ones receiving replacements, but the resolution does not address the cost implications, said Barbara Ryan, chairman of MCA’s Environment, Parks and Recreation Committee.

Synthetic-turf fields have been around since the 1960s, but have been popping up all over Fairfax County in recent years as a way to extend playing time and meet increased demand from sports leagues. But area residents for years have expressed concerns about the fields’ potential environmental impacts, including toxic leachate.

There are about 103 athletic fields with artificial turf in Fairfax County, Ryan said. Synthetic-turf fields have been installed at these locations in McLean: McLean and Langley high schools, Holladay Field, Lewinsville Park, Linway Terrace, Spring Hill RECenter, Westgate Elementary School and the Police Field next to the McLean Governmental Center.

The Great Falls Citizens Association in 2017 asked Fairfax County officials to consider banning installations of crumb-rubber synthetic-turf fields. Two fields at Nike Park in Great Falls now are covered with an alternative surface, Thermoplastic elastomer (TPE).

The District of Columbia and municipalities in California, Connecticut, Maryland and Massachusetts have limited the use of synthetic-turf fields, MCA’s resolution stated.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 began a multi-agency investigation of potential human health effects from exposure to crumb-rubber infill in those fields, but has yet to release the results, Ryan said. Other concerns with artificial-turf fields include “forever chemicals” leaching into the environment, excessive heat buildup during the summer and recycling challenges.

Fairfax County Park Authority officials indicated at a Jan. 12 discussion concerning the addition of another synthetic-turf field at Linway Terrace Park that the agency may work with the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services to install enhanced stormwater-management facilities to handle runoff from such fields. MCA’s resolution supported those measures.

County officials are aware of concerns about the fields and the need to address them, Ryan said. The fields have underground vaults beneath them that release collected waters into public waterways, hence the concerns about toxic leachate, she said.

“Fairfax County treats synthetic-turf fields as impervious pavement,” Ryan said. “It’s as if they’re building a building in the park.”

The MCA board in February 2018 passed a resolution urging the county to sample and test drainage from synthetic-turf fields to ensure toxic materials from them were not migrating into the watershed via adjacent water bodies and storm sewers. That resolution also called for creation of a task force  for ongoing examination of issues related to the fields.

“Looking at the issue anew this year, we learned that concerns about the environmental and health effects related to synthetic-turf fields continue to be significant and in some ways have grown,” Ryan said.