May 2008

City Bond Could Strip Grass from Athletic Fields

By Kerry Fleisher

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Proposition A, the Clean and Safe Neighborhoods Parks bond, last month, which earmarks $117.4 million to rehabilitate 12 neighborhood parks and $33 million to improve open space along the waterfront.  With many of the City’s parks suffering from poor upkeep, most athletes and park-goers favor the infusion of cash.  But a number of Potrero Hill residents are questioning the bond’s finer print, which includes $8.5 million to match private funds from the City Fields Foundation, a nonprofit that intends to replace currently grass-covered athletic fields with crumb rubber artificial turf know as “Field Turf.”  

With the administrative support of the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department, City Fields Foundation has financed artificial turf renovations at five public parks in San Francisco.  Founded in 2005 to address the chronic shortage of playing fields in San Francisco, City Fields Foundation has agreed to contribute $8.5 million in matching funds to expand athletic field renovations to a couple dozen more parks.  The Foundation’s short-list includes the Potrero Hill Recreation Center on Arkansas and 23rd streets, and Potrero Del Sol Park on Potrero Avenue and 25th Street.

The City Fields Foundation promotes the use of Field Turf, an artificial grass that’s composed of shredded tires.  The material provides a secondary use for difficult to dispose of old tires, and creates a softer surface.  Unlike its competitor AstroTurf, Field Turf uses crumb rubber infill as a cushion underneath the top layer of fiber grass and above the woven fabrics simulating ground soil.  

However, there’s evidence that this type of artificial turf contains toxins that are potentially damaging to athletes.  Due to the metallic compounds found in tires, the product’s health risks to athletes — particularly children — who could accidental inhale the rubber pellets or sustain a skin abrasion, have been the subject of several inquiries.  Environmental reviews have produced a spectrum of results, with some reports contending that rubber infill is a high-risk substance, while others claiming that metallic toxin levels are so miniscule as to be negligible. One study conducted by the French government found that the health risks associated with the material “give no cause for concern;” while a study by Rutgers University determined that six cancer-causing agents, known as PAHs, were above the concentration levels deemed hazardous by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

With such mixed information, better data is needed before a fully-informed judgment can be made on possible risks.  New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright has called for a moratorium on the use of Field Turf until more studies are conducted.  A group of Potrero Hill residents concerned about the material’s long-term health impacts have similarly taken the issue to the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and are requesting that an Environmental Impact Review be conducted before any additional parks are turfed-over.

“We want grass, not plastic to walk on. We need air not poison metal fumes to breath,” said Leah Grant, a Potrero Hill resident spearheading the incipient movement to ward off the use of Field Turf on local parks.

City Fields Foundation asserts that Field Turf is an effective way to recycle tires and avoid the carbon-emitting combustion process used to compress rubber.  Other artificial turf supporters point-out that the material eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, which typically cause groundwater contamination.  

Opponents counter that rubber turf can’t sequester carbon dioxide like natural grass; the Athena Institute, a biomedical research facility, determined that it would take 1,861 trees to render artificial turf carbon-neutral over a 10-year period.  And they claim that the dry-cleaning agents the City uses to clean the artificial turf also contaminates groundwater.  Environmentalist also point-out that Field Turf is not biodegradable, and will eventually end up in a landfill; and that the land under artificial turf can reach up to 30 percent higher temperatures than normal climes, which alters the local ecosystem.  

Though children in little leagues and soccer teams across San Francisco may be eager to replace their pock-marked fields with the pristine and consistent texture of artificial turf, some residents argue that the fenced-in artificial turf, which will be leased to sports leagues, excludes other community members.  The San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department calculates that the City’s children can play more than twice as many games a year with the Field Turf, which can be used year-round and during heavy rain.  However, while City Fields Foundation asserts that artificial turf can reduce maintenance costs by 75 percent, new installations will have to be maintained by the taxpayers; the artificial turf at Garfield Park in the Mission is already beginning to tear, and may be expensive to repair.

Several Potrero Hill activists also question the financial motives behind the City Fields Foundation, which is chaired by Bob Fisher, the chairman of Gap Inc., a company which has recently been dogged by accusations of poor social stewardship.  “We are determined to keep San Francisco’s free and natural habitats, not watch the lawyer leagues rent our ruined fields from behind locked fences,” said Grant.      

A meeting to discuss the Clean and Safe Neighborhoods Parks bond will be held on January 3rd at City Hall.   If approved the bond will be appear on the February 5th election ballot.


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