AUSTIN, TX (March 2, 2016) –
As Ashland School District delves into the rectangular, polyurethane-coated world of Q-ratings and coconut fibers, shock pads and rubber filaments, another school district 450 miles to the north is currently reaping the benefits of its own sports field renovation.
South Kitsap School District in Port Orchard, Wash., could serve as Ashland’s litmus test for a number of reasons. The small community 25 miles west of Seattle received a substantial donation to get its project off the ground, hired Hellas Construction to do the job and ultimately decided Hellas’ Geo Plus natural infill was worth the added cost.
Now, sixth months after South Kitsap High School unveiled its $1.54 million field, Ashland School District, boosted by its own major donation, is working toward what it hopes will be a similar end. The Austin, Texas-based Hellas Construction appears to be the frontrunner to land the project, and now the big question is whether or not the district will raise enough money to afford the Geo Plus infill it prefers.
If Ashland manages that, it can only hope its revamped Walter A. Phillips Field is as big a hit as Kitsap Bank Stadium has become.
“What the kids are saying,” South Kitsap High School athletic director Ed Santos said, “is that — we’ve had football on it, we’ve had a whole soccer season on it — it’s easy to cut on and it feels like playing on a super nice, well done grass field. It doesn’t feel like playing on turf. … We haven’t had it a long time so the data on it is a little limited, but all the responses from kids have been nothing but positive. Coaches love it and soccer coaches especially love it because it’s a turf field that plays like grass.”
South Kitsap assistant director of facilities Michael Riley agreed, saying, “I would buy another one tomorrow, given the opportunity.”
Consisting of cork and coconut fibers and advertised to be "at least" 40 degrees cooler than rubber infill in the summer months and 100 percent recyclable, the Geo Plus infill would cost the Ashland district an extra $205,000, which would jack up the final price tag for Ashland’s renovation to a cool $1.35 million. Figuring in a large grant she expects the district to be awarded in late March or early April, Ashland Schools Foundation Executive Director Susan Bacon, who heads up the fundraising committee, said last week that Ashland was very close to meeting its original goal of $1.148 million.
That means that Bacon and her staff are sharpening up their pitches, hoping that a last-gasp fundraising squeeze can yield a state-of-the-art field that would likely be the first of its kind in Oregon. If not, the district will have to settle for Hellas’ “realfill” product which, like the vast majority of synthetic turf fields, consists of rubber granules.
The district’s desire to go with the natural infill stems not only from the benefits of Geo Plus, but also the drawbacks and even some perceived dangers of crumb rubber. On Feb. 12, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission launched a multi-agency study aimed at answering the health concerns associated with playing on crumb rubber fields.
Other federal, state and local government agencies have conducted limited studies on the health risks associated with playing on crumb rubber fields, including one in 2008 and 2009 that evaluated synthetic turf “grass blades” for lead exposure. None of those studies have shown an elevated health risk, but according to the EPA, “existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb.”
Ashland Superintendent Jay Hummel would rather not have that study hanging over the district’s head should it break ground, as expected, on a field that is likely to be well used by both adults and children for decades (the estimated lifespan is 8-12 years, after which the surface and infill are replaced).
“Natural fill is the future and we’re just right on that cusp,” Hummel said. “In the last two or three months there’s been an enormous amount of media and concern about crumb rubber fields from a lot of perspectives. My sense after listening to some of the providers is that even though there may not be definitive proof at this point that the crumb rubber fields are toxic or are causing other problems, I think the industry’s going to move in the other direction to get away from even any hint of that. I think there’s going to come a day when no one’s going to want a crumb rubber field and it may not be too far away. So I’d hate to get this first one in and three years from now decide it was unfortunate we did that.”
If one could examine a split-open cross section of a modern turf field, they would marvel at a lasagna of finely crafted synthetics which bears no resemblance to that early iteration knee-buckler known as Astro Turf. Every company has its own version fashioned from its own highly touted materials, but most include many of the same elements: a base, a cushy layer known in laymen’s terms as a concussion pad, the infill and the synthetic grass itself.
Hellas advertises four infill options — three standard synthetic products and Geo Plus. Its Realfill infill has a silica pea gravel base underneath a layer of dust-free, cubodial rubber granules which are designed to minimize "fly-out," rubber's tendency to kick up underfoot and stick to clothing. Hellas also has a Nike Grind infill, as well as a sand and rubber option. The Nike version consists of ground up Nike shoe soles. The Geo Plus infill is made from “100 percent environmentally friendly materials” which, if properly irrigated, will significantly reduce field temperatures when the weather gets hot. It does this by “resisting heat absorption and retaining humidity.”
How much water the field requires depends on the climate, but if moisture levels are not at least 30 percent, Hellas recommends approximately 3,200 gallons of water should be added to an 80,000 square foot field. That sounds like a lot, but it represents only about 10 percent of the average grass field’s water consumption.
Crumb rubber fields require much more water to remain playable in hotter climates.
The Geo Plus field has a few other major pluses, according to Riley and Santos: soccer balls don’t skip across the surface the way they tend to do on rubber-packed fields; it doesn’t have the bouncy feel that traditional turf fields do, but the G-max impact rating was still a sterling 90; it doesn’t “grab” feet, a synthetic turf drawback that can lead to serious injuries; and the tiny bits of infill don’t kick up and stick to players’ clothing the way rubber granules do.
Santos was particularly pleased with the latter benefit of the Geo Plus field, noting that the rubber pellets found on most synthetic fields can become a real nuisance. “One of my sons played high-level club soccer for years,” he said. “We were at turf fields all the time, so our car had all the little black stuff all the time. It was all over his clothes, it was everywhere. The black rubber really travels. This — none. It stays in because it packs in, like soil does almost.”
Riley said the decision to go with the natural infill was made after Hellas presented a demonstration.
“One of the deciding factors for us,” he said, “was foot stability — it has increased foot stability — it eliminates turf toe. Obviously it’s an all natural product. It’s a pretty amazing surface to play on.”
Bacon will likely provide an update on the fundraising effort during the next school board meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, March 14, at the Ashland Council Chambers (1175 E. Main St.). For more information about the fundraising effort, or to contribute, visit www.ashland.k12.or.us and click on the "Ashland High School Turf Field Campaign" icon.
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.