Turf war? Residents aim to halt construction of synthetic football field in Burrillville, citing risk from PFAS

In a video posted by Norman Desjarlais, Roberta Lacey and Adam Schatz are seen discussion the effort to halt installation of the artificial turf field.

BURRILLVILLE – Concerns about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – known as forever chemicals – have led a group of town residents to call for a halt to the installation of a synthetic turf field at Burrillville High School.

Roberta Lacey has been leading the charge to inform locals about the dangers of the chemicals with the circulation of flyers, visits before government boards and a public meeting attended by some 15 residents on Sunday night.

“It was a really, really tough decision for me to bring this to the public,” Lacey said this week.

Used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s including many common household items, PFAS are called forever chemicals because the substances don’t break down easily in the environment and can stay intact for thousands of years.

“They do not leave your body,” said Lacey at the meeting on Sunday, June 30. “They just accumulate.”

While it is unknown how many artificial fields in use today contain PFAS, the synthetic turf is known to contain the chemicals, and industry officials have said they need until 2026 to develop alternatives.

In Burrillville, contractor FieldTurf is on track to install a synthetic field at the East Avenue high school this summer. The project was approved in 2022, and the once grassy area where the turf is soon set to be laid down has already been dug up in preparation.

Lacey said she learned that the type of field underway in Burrillville likely contains PFAS in May, and has been researching the issue since.

“I know that they’ve been planning this for a long time,” she said of the athletic facilities upgrade. “Everybody involved probably had really good intentions. I don’t have any problem with the field or what they want to do for the kids in this town. I think it’s great.”

However, she added, “There’s no way they could have known what I found out, because they wouldn’t be putting it in. I really feel like none of them had the information they needed from the company to make an informed decision.”

Lacey brought her concerns before the Burrillville Town Council at their meeting on Wednesday, June 26, represented by Attorney Marisa Desautel of Desautel Browning Law.

“It’s got an extra bad risk to human health and the environment,” Desautel told councilors, noting that the chemicals pose health risks to both humans and animals, and have been linked to cancers; thyroid, immune system and liver problems; and can be fatal to unborn children.

Destautel disputed a report on the chemicals present in the synthetic turf presented to the council by experts working on behalf of the contractor, stating it did not include results for stormwater runoff or liquids.

“PFAS does exist in athletic turf fields,” Destautel said. “The concentrations of regulated PFAS in the report before you are unreported.”

Desautel noted that the proposed football field sits over an aquifer, and said that the project has the potential to contaminate private wells at several homes in the area. Plans to address the problem on the state and federal level, she noted, include litigation.

“This would include the town,” said Desautel. “The EPA and DEM would not rule out looking to Burrillville High School or the town of Burrillville for enforcement action.”

“Bottom line: this is a massive health risk,” she said.

Last Wednesday, Chris Hulk, director of design and construction for FieldTurf, disputed her assessment.

“We go to great lengths to make sure we are testing all of our materials,” Hulk said, describing testing used for the council’s report as, “standard.” “We know that this is a growing concern.”

Councilor Jeremy Bailey asked Hulk if he could guarantee that water would not get PFAS contamination as a result of the new turf. In response, Hulk cited a problem common to analysis of such fields’ impact on the environment: Because PFAS are everywhere, it is difficult to determine the source of such pollution.

Councilor Dennis Anderson noted that the presence of the chemicals in the turf was measured in parts per trillion.

“I have huge skepticism of measuring anything that tiny,” said Anderson. “I just think this stuff is everywhere.”

It was an observation also cited by Elizabeth Denly of TRC Environmental Consulting, an independent firm hired by the town to assess yhe threat. Denly outlined the company’s testing methods, noting the fields were found to contain PFAS that are, “orders of magnitude below,” the standard.

“We’re talking very trace levels,” Denly said. “I think we’ve shown through now a few different sets of tests that very low levels of a very limited number of PFAS in the turf does not represent a risk to human health, to those that are using the ball fields, and that it doesn’t pose a risk to the environment, the groundwater, the surface water and the aquifer. There’s certain levels that are acceptable They’re not really seeing anything in this turf.”

The standards, however, are continually changing, and becoming more stringent as both state and federal level authorities look to protect human health. Just last week, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law banning the addition of PFAS to most consumer products sold or manufactured in the state by Jan. 1, 2027, with additional products banned on Jan. 1, 2029. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has also taken recent measures to protect consumers from the chemicals, reclassifying PFAS as a hazardous substance as of July 8. And the EPA’s stated goal is to set the acceptable level of water contamination at zero.

Desautel pointed to the discovery of PFAS last year in a well at North Smithfield High School, downgradient from a synthetic field installed by the company just two years earlier. The attorney noted that a well at a higher elevation on the same property had not been affected, and said that PFAS can be found in a circle that radiates around the North Smithfield field.

Councilors asked Hulk if he was involved with the North Smithfield project and he said he was.

“This is the first I’m hearing about any sort of issues with the wells downstream,” Hulk said, adding that it was, “hard to say,” what might be contributing to the problem.

Councilor Raymond Trinque pointed to the ubiquity of the substance.

“What’s going to happen when there’s no pans, no raincoats, no turf fields? What’s the answer?” Trinque asked.

Councilors ultimately took no action on the issue.

Despite the limited time left for the town to reverse course, for Lacey, it seems the fight has just begun.

“I had hoped that bringing this to everybody would be enough,” she said.

Her and others concerned about the issue have begun circulating both a physical and online petition with the intention to go back before the council.

“When you think of Burrillville, you think we’re land rich. We”re water rich. But we’re in trouble,” Lacey said. “We’ve (already) had two very serious contaminations. We all, unfortunately, know in Burrillville about contaminated water. Harrisville is all we’ve got.”

“These fields are made to leach,” she said. “They’re a big giant carpet. We all know where that leaching is going to go. I just think it’s a tragedy that they’re still being allowed to do this.”

Editor’s note: The original version of this article stated that TRC Consulting was working on behalf of contractor FieldTurf. TRC is an independent firm that was contracted by the town to assess the danger. We apologize for the error.

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  1. PFAS in turf field products has been a known issue for well over a decade now. Project Managers, Town Management and Municipal Staff should have been in the “know” about these products early on in the planning & preliminary design phase considerations. North Smithfield’s turf field will likely be the alledged “source” of the recent PFAS contamination present in the High School & Middle School wells. PFAS destroyed the Oakland public well next to the Oakland-Mapleville Fire Department in 2017 because of ill informed management decisions to use PFAS firefighting foam for training in the brand new parking lot which infiltrates stormwater directly into the underlying soils, right next to the former public well. Harrisville Water had to bail out Oakland. Pascoag leans almost entirely on Harrisville Water following the Y2K MTBE contamination which ruined Pascoag’s public water wells. Harrisville Water is heading for extinction if careful consideration during the pre-planning phases are not given, which appears to be the case here. All the football parents and banner winners dangled the forbidden fruit in front of our School Committee members & Town Councilors, most likely afraid to say “no” due to backlash. When will we learn? Once Harrisville Water is contaminated, lets face if folks, there is no other backup water supply for Burrillville….That’s it! It is not too late to change the “game plan” for our public athletic fields.

  2. The water in Harrisville is not that good if your elderly immune suppressed or other health problems should not drink the water that’s right from there water teat

  3. The field should be decided by The Taxpayers and Department of Health and Human Services.
    Use natural sod to replace the existing field.

  4. Thank you for pointing out the issues regarding PFAS and artificial turf. If only North Smithfield had practiced more due diligence. Field Turf Products have been cited in numerous articles regarding PFAS and even the NFL players association is against artificial turf due to increased risk of injury. Listen to the experts, not those whose financial interests are tied to the sales of these products.

  5. Shame on the town council if they continue to move forward with this now knowing the risks involved. Their pledge to the town is to serve the community. At the least, they should delay this project and do their due diligence on the issue.

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