$30K for turf equipment in Norwalk sparks debate on safety of millions of dollars in new fields

NORWALK — The Common Council approved $28,499 in spending for a turf field groomer, but not before members held a contentious discussion about the future of artificial turf fields in the city.

Before the vote held at a recent meeting, council member Lisa Shanahan said she had asked for the item to be moved off the consent calendar so it could be discussed. She cited studies that have shown some health risks of turf fields, especially when it comes to drinking water.

“I challenge this council, the mayor and his administration to do the research, to understand the risk to our city’s drinking water and to avoid assuming this huge potential liability by installing artificial fields anywhere close to our drinking water so that we risk contaminating our drinking water in any way," she said at a meeting on March 14.

Although the item before the council concerned only the purchase of the field groomer and did not authorize the city to create any more turf fields, Shanahan said, "It seems a bit like buying an ashtray when you’re trying to stop smoking.”

Norwalk received nearly $5 million in funding from the State Bond Commission last year for new turf fields in the city.

After Shanahan's comments, director of recreation and parks Robert Stowers spoke in defense of the proposal. He said the city needed to invest in the equipment such as the groomer for upkeep of the fields, which have already cost "millions of dollars."

“Tonight we’re not voting on installing any synthetic turf," he said. "What we’re voting on today is to maintain the millions of dollars that we’ve put in thus far. We’ve put in millions of dollars into these fields, and we can’t just let them go. It’s more dangerous not to maintain these fields. We’re not voting on installing another field. We’re voting on maintaining what we’ve spent millions of dollars on.”

A number of council members said they were interested in talking more about the future of fields in Norwalk, even as the vote ultimately passed, 8-4, to go ahead with the purchase.

“This is a piece of equipment to maintain what we have," council member Darlene Young said. "And we need to move forward and do that. And I think we really need to have some sort of balanced conversation about what our fields will look like in the city of Norwalk to accommodate all of the programming and all of the folks who want to use our fields."

Local groups have raised concerns recently with artificial turf fields in Norwalk and other municipalities. The Norwalk River Watershed Association hosted a webinar earlier this month on its issues with turf fields. The group specifically highlighted the growing concerns over PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — which are widely used and long-lasting chemicals, components of which break down very slowly, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Although there was no agenda item at the meeting regarding overall plans for turf fields, Stowers did say the city was looking at other substances to use as fill for the turf fields.

Jonah.Dylan@hearstmediact.com, @TheJonahDylan