The Department of General Services is replacing the artificial turf fields at three D.C. schools after a recent round of hardness testing resulted in out-of-compliance scores at more than a dozen schools and parks.
The failures, and other concerns about synthetic materials, have also sparked a larger conversation about all of the city’s 52 public turf fields, many of which are nearing or have reached the end of their lifespans. The administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser is convening an inter-agency working group to sort through the various issues, including what materials should be used in replacement fields and when fields should be replaced, DGS announced on Wednesday.
The plans come several months after parents and natural grass advocates began pressing the administration about what they consider the dangers of crumb rubber and other synthetic materials used in artificial turf, a debate that has played out around the country in recent years.
While the controversy around synthetic turf is wide-ranging—encompassing cost, toxicity, heat, bacteria, and other issues—the subject came to the fore after a series of hardess test failures this spring and summer.
Impact attenuation, also called g-max testing, determines how much shock a surface absorbs, and it is the only regular test the city performs on its fields. Higher g-max values mean harder surfaces, and higher risks of concussions and other injuries.
The standards body ASTM International uses a maximum threshold of 200g to determine when fields are no longer safe for play. That rating “is the equivalent of frozen Earth or concrete,” John Schedler, an industry veteran with more than 30 years experience, told the Voice of San Diego last year. Many field makers use lower standards, and even the synthetic turf industry group says that g-max scores should remain under 165g.
The issue began at Janney Elementary School, when the field scored 206g on annual g-max tests conducted in April and May.
FieldTurf had a maintenance contract that included testing at Janney and the other 39 fields that use its materials; DGS was unable to immediately say who conducted testing on the remaining 12 sites or when. The agency says it didn’t get the results from Fieldturf until June.
“Our most recent testing performed within the past year on all of these fields shows that they are safe, with g-max levels below (in many cases well below) 200. The one exception is the Janney Elementary field which recently registered slightly above 200 and which we had planned to quickly remediate, per ASTM guidelines,” FieldTurf said in an emailed statement. “We have not been made aware of any other tests showing higher g-max levels on these fields.”
But seeing the Janney failure, city officials ordered another round of testing at every public field by an independent contractor.
Sole-source procurement documents appear to show that the first round of emergency testing cost the city more than $200,000 in total. It isn’t exactly clear why exactly, since g-max tests typically cost between $500 and $1,300, and DGS has not returned a request for the total cost of conducting the tests.
While officials with DGS initially told DCist that 11 sites had failed the g-max test (and published an FAQ online that reflected that figure), they now say a total of 16 fields scored over the maximum hardness threshold considered safe for play. In July, the independent turf expert recommended repairing nine fields and replacing seven, including Janney.
The city then hired yet another company to re-test the seven fields that had been recommended for replacement. The third tester recommended replacing three, and doing significant repairs to a fourth.
But even amid multiple g-max failures at the Janney field, it still took DGS several weeks to restrict activities there. The other fields were put on limited use more quickly.
“It may seem like a protracted period of time, but it’s what we felt was necessary to bring forward to the city as to the reason for shutting down the fields for an extended period of time,” DGS Director Greer Johnson Gillis said today.
The field at Janney Elementary School has already been replaced and is slated to return to use on Thursday, according to Gillis. The fields at the Adams campus of the Oyster-Adams Bilingual School and Eaton Elementary will also be replaced by the second week of October.
Twelve schools and recreation sites have already undergone repairs to bring them back into compliance with the 200g standard and a thirteenth, Brightwood Elementary, will be repaired the second week of October.
FieldTurf also said in the statement that “during the leadership transition at DGS it has come to our attention that much of the data as it relates to field testing, suggested field replacements and overall maintenance had not been shared with the new leadership.”
Until now, DGS has said little publicly about the failures until a number of media outlets followed up in the wake of DCist’s story earlier this week. They have also ignored requests to provide the results of g-max scores for the city’s entire inventory despite repeated inquiries from concerned parents and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh.
“Whenever we have something like this, I think the information has to come out when they have it. I’m concerned that the test results were not even on the website. Who was to know? It was like a secret,” Cheh told DCist. “As soon as they know something like this, it has to be made public and it wasn’t. That’s a problem.”
Gillis says the agency is waiting for the inter-agency working group to convene to release the scores. “There needs to be education in place when we post those scores. In fact, as opposed to just putting out numbers randomly, we want to make sure it’s wrapped around an education program as well,” she said today. “We’ve asked the inter-agency working group, when they come together, one thing that they would also consider is how best do we post those scores and actually message those scores to the community.”
That working group will be comprised of DGS officials and their clients—D.C. Public Schools and the Department of Parks and Recreation—as well as officials from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, the City Administrator’s Office, and the Department of Energy and the Environment. Parents and advocates will not be appointed to the group, but Gillis pledges that there will be “an extensive community engagement piece.”
The group is slated to make recommendations to the executive office in January or February, with a final plan in place by the end of March.
A number of parents, meanwhile, are furious about being left out of the official conversation. More than 300 people have signed a petition demanding they be directly included in the process, and about a dozen attended a parent-led meeting at Oyster-Adams Elementary School on Tuesday evening to discuss the issues.
“As a community, we want to be involved in the decision making process,” said parent and environmental lawyer Maria Coor at the meeting. “We want a seat at the table, we want professionals that are not being paid by the industry to provide analysis and research and information.”
The Adams campus of the school is one of the three fields that will be replaced immediately. The Oyster campus passed the g-max tests, but parents say the field is in a state of complete disarray. They showed photos of loose crumb rubber and shared a video of children dumping it out their shoes. An after school manager said the materials track into the building and kids are often spotted playing with or even eating it.
For Coor and other parents who are affiliated with the natural grass advocacy group Tireless DC, a major issue is the materials that DGS plans to use in new fields as they come up for replacement.
The D.C. Council issued a moratorium on crumb rubber infill—shredded up recycled tires—earlier this year amid questions about the material’s toxicity and an ongoing national debate about its safety. DGS says it supports the ban and is only using alternative materials going forward. Part of the inter-agency taskforce’s job will be doing an analysis of the options and determining what the city will use in the future.
In the meantime, the Janney field has been replaced with a system called Envirofill. Fields that are being repaired rather than replaced have used EPDM as a substitute for crumb rubber.
Neither are acceptable to Coor and other advocates.
Envirofill is a shock-pad and acrylic-coated silica sand infill system. Ryan Teeter, an engineer with LDD Sports, came out to the meeting and said he recommended it to DGS for Janney and other fields as a practical solution that takes into account the heavy use and other ways that such sites are used.
“With Envirofill, a shock pad will stop infill from flying into the air the way that crumb rubber frequently does,” he told the group. Teeter cited a series of studies, both from manufacturers’ and from municipalities, that found it to be safe.
Parents countered, in often tense exchanges, that these products aren’t federally regulated and expressed concern that the infill material is a carcinogen that is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“What happens five, seven, ten years down the road? What happens when the dust that is odorless tasteless and invisible comes up,” asks Coor, adding that she didn’t trust the city to maintain the system properly given the current poor condition of the field.
EPDM, the other proposed material, doesn’t pass muster for advocates either. Diana Conway, with the Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition, told DGS today that it is a “marketing solution, not a chemical solution” because of its similarities to crumb rubber, which is recycled whereas EPDM is a new or “virgin” material.
“I understand your concerns and thank you for expressing them,” Gillis responded. “But until we go into the inter-agency working group and have an opportunity to look into that, if we get a notice that we need to [make] repairs, that’s what we’re going with.”
These are the 12 fields that have already undergone significant or spot repairs and are currently open:
McKinley High School
Wilson High School
Riggs Recreation Center
Bell/Lincoln (Columbia Heights EC)
Deanwood Recreation Center
Jellef Recreation Center
Parkview Recreation Center
Ross Elementary School
Tubman Elementary School
Mann Elementary School
A thirteenth field will be repaired by the following date:
Brightwood Elementary School (by the second week of October 2017)
And three fields will be replaced by the following dates:
Janney Elementary School (September 21, 2017)
Adams Elementary School (by the second week of October 2017)
John Eaton Elementary School (by the second week of October 2017)