BETHESDA, Md. - Artificial turf at schools has become a hotly-debated topic in the D.C. region.
Last fiscal year, Montgomery County Public Schools approved to change out old "crumb rubber" fields in the school district with organic Zeolite infill. Zeolite is mineral sources from rock in Nevada.
In April, school board members approved a $1.34 million contract for Walt Whitman High School.
Now, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School will get the turf on a $1.45 million contract. On Monday night, Montgomery County school board members approved the cost increase, citing concerns over the school's current natural field.
"That field in nothing flat, failed, just because of the overuse - because they do not have alternative athletic facilities," said school board member Patricia O'Neill when commenting before the vote.
Mike Viqueira with the school's booster club agrees.
"All of our schools down county are bursting at the seams," he added. "They have been overcapacity for years so it was very much needed. You can't have gym class out on the field because you're going to trample the grass."
The BCC Booster Club plans on raising money for the added costs of the field - more than $50,000 - according to the change order approved Monday.
Artificial turf in general is more costly to maintain than natural fields. But school board members explained it's not a budget issue, but rather about "access and expanding use of fields."
"I have been on both sides in terms of schools that I have worked at," said school board president Michael Durso before Monday's vote. "It's extraordinarily complex, but I think if we continue to work and communicate with each other, hopefully there is a middle ground that we can reach that will be agreeable to all."
Durso spoke in reference to the discussion of equity among schools when it comes to field access and PTA/booster funding support.
And then there's the health aspect.
In April, some Montgomery County residents raised concerns at the introduction of Zeolite. Even though it is organic, it is not plant-based as many had been pushing for.
"Asbestos is organic," explained Susan Loftus at an April school board meeting. "We thought it was safe. And then when it crumbled and people inhaled it, we now know it is not safe."
There are more than 50 species of Zeolites. For example, Erionite Zeolite has cancer-causing carcinogens. But the school district is using Clinoptilolite Zeolite, which is "well below the standard for children's toys based on the European Standard," according to a press release. Clinoptilolite Zeolite is also touted as a detoxification product.
Some residents following the issue have also expressed concern over how the school district plans to dispose of the old crumb rubber fields. Chief Operating Officer Dr. Andrew Zuckerman addressed the subject in Monday's meeting:
"We know that the Board received additional questions over the weekend regarding disposal of the artificial turf field material from Richard Montgomery High School (RMHS). First, let me assure you that the statements that we have issued on our website and in previous responses to elected officials are completely accurate.
"Consistent with the clear policy direction of the Board of Education and consistent with the MCPS value of environmental stewardship, our contract for replacement of the RMHS field included a requirement that the existing field be recycled to the maximum extent possible. In this case, the entire field system, which includes the carpet and infill material, is being reused by a recreational facility in the White Marsh area and others outside of Maryland. Reuse is a core element of the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" approach to waste management. Product reuse is permissible under state and local regulations; prevents materials from being disposed of in the waste stream; and precludes the need for additional new materials to be generated.
"In the RMHS field replacement project, as in any major construction project, debris was generated by the demolition. This debris represents a very small fraction of the full stadium field. As I stated on our website, "remaining debris left over from the removal of the turf field" was cleared. Management of construction debris is a specialized industry, and these materials are routinely transported to transfer stations, often in other areas of the country, for safe sorting and handling. Transfer stations identify materials that can be recycled and appropriately process remaining materials; they do not accept materials which they are not licensed to process. We will continue to hold our contractors to high standards and work to ensure compliance with all environmental and safety regulations. We will provide a full written explanation of this process as requested in a memorandum to Dr. Smith by Ms. Ortman-Fouse, who asked a series of important questions about the turf removal process that will help illuminate this issue.
"The Board of Education is an excellent steward of both taxpayer resources and of the environment in the service of educating the children and youth of Montgomery County. The Superintendent and those of us in his administration are committed to implementing the Board's vision. It is unfortunate that there is a small group of individuals attempting to mislead and misinform our community about this issue. This behavior distracts from our core mission of teaching and learning. I am particularly troubled by the fact that in this case we are fielding questions about a paintball facility's reuse of artificial turf in White Marsh, Maryland when here in Montgomery County locally we are focused on creating opportunities for all students to learn and achieve at high levels. We welcome serious debate on instructional and operational issues; at the same time we know that accountability only truly results when all stakeholders hold to high standards of accuracy, reliability, and constructive communication."