Turf wars

The balance sheet on artificial field turf is filled with costs far more complicated than a simple dollar figure — costs to the environment, to athletes' bodies and a price tag of more than $800,000.

Those costs have been weighing on Ashland School Board members minds since the booster club first requested permission in March to start raising money for an artificial field at the high school. The board has unearthed all sorts of conflicting reports about the safety of the latest turf products on the road to a decision they will reconsider at a meeting Monday night.

The board pushed the decision back from its Sept. 8 meeting, where members were split on a vote to allow continued fundraising on the project. Keith Massie and Ruth Alexander voted to give the booster club the go-ahead to continue raising funds, Amy Patton and Mat Marr voted no and Heidi Parker chose to abstain.

Ashland Parks and Recreation officials have warned the district that the existing field needs work that could cost upwards of $200,000 even if the artificial turf field gets defeated, so board members are also taking a close look at the advantages and disadvantages of grass.

Earlier this week, board chair Mat Marr said the dilemma lay in trying to choose the best option, not the lesser of two evils.

"We can't just consider this in a vacuum; we have to have a field," he said. "Regardless of what we do, I don't think we can really make a bad decision here because the evidence of serious danger is not major ... both grass and field turf would be safe places for our kids to play games."

Is it safe?

Artificial turf has come a long way since the days of AstroTurf and "turf toe," a painful condition attributed to early versions of faux field surfaces. Studies have shown that artificial turf has about the same or lower injury rates to the head, neck, back and joints.

But reports of dangerous levels of lead threaten to cancel out those benefits. Agencies around the country have issued reports and warnings, some declaring artificial turf completely safe and others raising alarming concerns.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a health advisory in June warning that the risk of exposure to harmful amounts of lead in artificial turf increases with age. In July, however, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that the small amounts of lead found in the plastic blades to provide coloring were safe for children. The commission did ask the industry to develop voluntary turf standards and stop using lead in the future, however. After the report was issued, the Oregon Public Health Division warned school districts and other artificial turf operators that there are still uncertainties about turf, especially on older fields.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced in May it would also evaluate lead levels in artificial turf, but the agency does not anticipate having field results until mid-October and lab results until mid-November, EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said.

On Monday, the school board will ask if there are any turf products without lead, or if a progressive city like Ashland would accept a turf field that isn't green, Marr said.

A second safety issue is the relatively higher temperatures of artificial fields compared to grass. A study conducted in May by the New York City Health Department concluded that exposure to lead and other chemicals found in the rubber infill were safe for children, but warned of increased risk of heat-related illnesses.

Dennis Murphy, the athletic director of South Medford High School, said his coaches have commented that the artificial turf installed at Spiegelberg Stadium in 2004 is warmer than the old grass field.

"We knew that before we ever started, but the tradeoff is so huge," he said. "Yeah, it's a little hotter, but the surface is so much nicer."

The stadium provides substantial shade, he said, and the field has saved the school money on maintenance and reduced the frequency of uniform replacement. The field also sees much more use than ever before.

"It's one of the best things we've ever done for the community because of the amount of kids who get to use it," he said. "It's what we thought it would be and even more so. There are days we use it 7 a.m. to 10 p.m."

Money matters

The entire project would cost somewhere around $850,000 according to booster club estimates.

Since the club received approval to begin fundraising in May, members have collected $65,000 in cash and $125,000 in pledges, just $10,000 of their September goal of $200,000.

Ashland Athletic Director Karl Kemper told the board on Sept. 8 that he expected to be farther along than that, but that the economy had slowed the club's progress.

If the project continues, it will not use funds from the district's general budget, and booster club members have argued it will save the district money on maintenance in the long-run.

The only maintenance required is sweeping the field, which other Oregon schools who have installed the turf do between once a month and once a year.

Artificial turf would eliminate the need for mowing and watering, costs to the environment as well as the bottom line.

Pesticides and herbicides, traditionally used on grass would also be unnecessary with an artificial field as well, a downside to grass that board members will have to consider on Monday.

Team weighs in

The Ashland High School football team got a taste of artificial turf last weekend when they traveled to Marshfield High School, which installed the product back in 1998.

Senior Charlie Sebrell said he preferred the grass here in Ashland to Marshfield's turf.

"Even though it's easier for cutting and you are a little faster on it, it hurts falling on it and you get banged up and get your head rattled up, so I prefer grass like at home," he said.

Head football coach Charlie Hall said his all-time favorite field is grass at Northern Arizona University where the Arizona Cardinals hold their training camps, but those top-quality fields are not always practical for a high school.

"To have a field like that, like a golf course — flat and level and so well-groomed — I think that's unrealistic to have that kind of a facility at a high school," he said. "It takes so much work and preparation for that, so the next best thing would be a turf field that is flat and you can use year round and in inclement weather. I know the Grizzlies have had some great success in some muddy games over their history ... but I'd be willing to give that up just to have that consistency of surface year round."

The school board meeting to discuss artificial turf will be held in the Ashland Middle School cafeteria at 7 p.m. Monday.

Orville Hector contributed to this report.

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