By: Thomas Christopher
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.