Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Fight Against Artificial Turf in Middletown, CT

By: Thomas Christopher
Middletown, CT

It was a rare success, notes Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health, Inc.: While synthetic turf fields are popping up all over Connecticut, residents of Middletown turned back a proposal by their city to create 9 synthetic turf playing fields.  As such, it’s worth studying how the Middletown activists mounted their campaign.

Alderman’s organization, a non-profit dedicated to protecting human health from environmental harms, has been raising the alarm about the recycling of tires as play surfaces for several years.  As Alderman points out, in some states, used and discarded tires are regulated as a hazardous waste; in Connecticut, they are treated as a “special waste” that, by law, cannot be disposed of in landfills.  That’s just common sense, because as they decompose tires release heavy metals such as lead and zinc, a variety of carcinogens such as carbon black and benzene, and other toxic compounds that are as yet poorly understood.

Yet grind these same tires  up into fine crumbs – enhancing the rate at which they release their toxic contents -- and they can be used as in-fill for the synthetic turf fields on which your children play sports.    Indeed, such fields have in recent years been popping up all over Connecticut, despite the resistance of local environmental groups.
The struggle in Middletown began with a largely uncontroversial parks bond referendum.  This was to be placed before the voters in November on 2015 and was to secure funding for 10 years worth of improvements to recreational spaces, including a new pool, new exercise and walking trails, bike paths, a splash pad-spray park and playground, and a dog park.  But even before the text of the referendum was officially released for public scrutiny in early August, 2015, environmental watchdogs had learned that it would include funds to install nine synthetic turf fields.

These activists were unusually well organized thanks to an environmentally oriented local 501(c)(3) non-profit, the Jonah Center.  In 2011, with a $1,000 grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, it had founded ECoIN – the Environmental Collective Impact Network – to serve as a clearing house for Middletown’s environmental organizations.  Currently, it includes some eleven such groups, ranging from the local garden club to the city of Middletown’s Recycling Commission, and the representatives of each meet once a month to discuss common concerns.  Thanks to members from the city government, EcoIN had an early warning of the proposal to install the synthetic turf fields.  Opposition began immediately, with ECoIN members coordinating so that there would be minimal duplication of efforts and a systematic strategy.

The activists recognized that education would be the key to a successful campaign.  Initially they had to educate themselves and for this they turned to a number of sources, in particular Environment and Human Health, Inc. which has been collecting information about the dangers of synthetic turf fields for a number of years. 

After educating themselves, the ECoIN members began meeting privately with members of the Middletown Common Council to share their concerns with them.   The activists also created fact sheets about synthetic turf targeted at different groups; on a sports night meeting at the local high school, for example, they distributed a fact sheet especially aimed at the parents of student athletes.  Eventually they addressed the general public, sponsoring a booth at an outdoor festival and collecting signatures on a petition requesting that the city eliminate the synthetic turf fields from the referendum.  Three hundred signatures were collected in a single day. representing a number of voters sufficient to sway a local election and proof to the Common Council members that interest in the issue was intense.

Defenders of synthetic turf insist that while the crumb rubber typically used as infill in synthetic turf is contaminated with a variety of toxins, no definitive studies have as yet proven that the resulting risk to children through inhalation, skin contact, and ingestion is at an unacceptable level.  The response of the Middletown activists was to ask parents and the city government if they wanted to make their children the subjects of a toxicology experiment.  In addition, using data taken from synthetic turf industry websites, the activists called into question the economics of the artificial fields, which would cost $850,000 to $1,000,000 each to install, and which would require extensive specialized maintenance and replacement typically after just 10 years of use.

Despite opposition from Middletown sports clubs, this lobbying paid off.  First the Common Council agreed (in a tie vote with the city’s mayor serving as the tie-breaker) to rewrite the referendum and substitute natural turf fields for the synthetic versions.  The environmentalists then rallied to the support of the referendum, which synthetic turf supporters tried to keep off the ballot.  Finally, on election day, the environmentalists handed out fact sheets outside the polling places, persuading voters to support the referendum.   Thanks in part to these efforts, the referendum passed and the city won funding for the parks and public spaces upgrades it was seeking – at a better price, due to the elimination of the costly synthetic turf.

Grassroots activism is a learning process, with practitioners constantly improving and updating strategies and skills.  What brought success in the campaign against synthetic turf will undoubtedly be re-applied to other, future campaigns.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Going Organic in Hopkinton, Massachusetts

Scott Currin Excavates with Soils in Mind

By Kathy Litchfield
HOPKINTON – Orchestrating the buzzing and swirling dance of a busy construction site is no easy feat under regular circumstances. When striving to disturb the soils as little as possible, separate types of soils for optimal usage later, and direct water flow with an eye towards appropriate stormwater management, neighborliness and erosion control, the job  becomes that more challenging.
Scott Currin, his family, and crew
                NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional Scott Currin is up to the task. Since the mid-1980s, he has worked in excavation for high-end residential homeowners as well as commercial clients. Early on he noticed the difficulty in avoiding compacting the soil as the construction process goes on – what with building contractors and subs hauling in tons of materials and heavy equipment, timing things so that everyone can get their work done in the most time- and cost-efficient manner and watching the weather to ensure control of water flow through the site from beginning to end.
                “I’m the first one in and the last one out (on a job site) so I have a lot of say as to how things progress. It’s really a huge dance. You have all the trades coming in with blinders on, trying to get their piece of it done. Most of them don’t fully understand the impact they have on the site; they drive materials over everything without thinking about compaction (for instance). So I have to try to control that a little bit,” said Currin, owner of Hopkinton Homesite Designs, LLC, founded in 1999. He started with high-end residential properties and also works on commercial sites, believing that “no job is too small” for his one-man operation.
Within the last three years, Currin said he “really got on board with the do no harm, organic ideas.”
                “The more I’m educating myself, the more I want to educate others. I found Dr. Elaine Ingham on the internet. I’ve been digging in the dirt for 30 plus years - like a big boy in the sandbox - and I’ve never really understood how everything works in terms of soil microbiology until I met her. She led me to NOFA and I really got into soils. I’ve always been environmentally sensitive to what’s going on anyways, and now I have the knowledge behind me to back it all up. This all makes sense,” he said, praising Todd Harrington of Harrington’s Organics and Paul Wagner of the Soil Food Web as being wonderful resources.
When Currin arrives at a new site, he tries to envision the whole job in his mind – what will go where, who needs to be where, when, for how long, how large the site is in terms of having places to move different soils to for safekeeping until later in the job process, and how to control the water on the site for months at a time.
                “All sites are different so you have to really see it all happening before it does, in order to make good decisions,” he said. “Water is the first thing I look for.”
                Currin assesses how he’ll control water flow throughout the construction process, ensuring it won’t negatively affect neighbors or cause erosion, and have the best drainage possible. Then he looks at the soils.
“We try to see what we’re going to disturb and try to disturb it as little as possible, thinking of how you’ll move your materials through the site during construction,” he said, always considering how he’ll keep types of soils such as topsoil, organic matter, subsoils and structural soils, separate – perhaps by stockpiling them in a back corner of the site, or removing them to another site if the site is too small (such as in a city or suburb environment) to house soils for the project’s projected time span. 
He also keeps in mind the future use of the site, thinking about where lawn, gardens, planting beds and driveways will be, so he can replace the right soils to the right places.  
“Be sure the soil you’re excavating is suitable for what you’ll use it for. All soils are very different in terms of how they respond to use. You want to limit the number of times you handle it both for cost and environmental concerns,” he said.
Currin often builds terracing and retention channels where water will drain quickly into the ground, especially for sites with high water tables. He watches the weather because when there is a two- to three-inch rainfall within a 24-hour period, that’s a lot of water to control on a building site.
                “You have to manage the site, for every weather event, every rain event, access issues . . . keeping all this in mind, as to how little impact you’re trying to have on the site. . . . It's great to have unlimited funds to do everything you want but that's rarely the case, especially when working with builders and budgets. You have to convince them sometimes that it’ll be worth it in the long run, to sell the organic aspect,” he said.
                Currin uses a large 320 excavator, backhoe and multi-terrain track loader, the latter of which he praised for its non-compaction properties. He makes his own compost tea and sources soils from the best companies he can find to ensure top quality for sites where that is appropriate. He praised Weston Nurseries for their high-quality loam and topsoil and stressed the importance of sourcing soils that are not contaminated.
                On the side, Currin loves adopting “rescue plants” from sites where they are unwanted, and often “marries them together” in his Hopkinton backyard by putting their dead sides back to back in close proximity. In spring, he said it’s “like a slow motion fireworks display of flowering” as plants bloom in succession blasting out form, color and fragrance. Among his favorites are rhododendrons, azaleas and umbrella pines all growing in close quarters, along with a 15-20-foot tall blue spruce that is married to an Alberta spruce and rhododendron. “They seem to enjoy each other and are growing like crazy,” he said.
                “The reason I got into pushing the organic end of it is to try and build on this (way of thinking) to become second nature. You’ve got to add some passion to your life after all. I really enjoy helping people understand that this is so, the way it needs to be, to be sustainable,” he said. “If I can convince people not to dump toxic chemicals on site, take care of the soils, and just notice the woods. It takes care of itself. If a tree gets sick, it dies but it provides food for everyone else. Let nature decide how it’s supposed to be. Let it be!”
    For more information, contact Currin at or call (508) 726-2094.