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Mt. Lebanon to open bids for two fields' artificial surfaces

| Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon officials on Thursday will open contractors' bids for installing artificial turf on two municipal fields, a project that spurred strong feelings and led officials to hold an informational meeting about potential health and environmental effects.

The $1 million proposal is to replace grass at Mellon and Wildcat fields, a pair of overlapping baseball/softball diamonds off Cedar Boulevard, with a multi-sport artificial turf that officials hope will be more durable and allow more playing time.

Contractors' bid packages were due at 11 a.m. to the municipal building, for a public reading.

Sports groups are required to contribute $250,000 to the project, and if they have the money, the Board of Commissioners could award a contract as early as June 23. Construction could start on Aug. 1, Recreation Director David Donnellan said.

An informational meeting last week at Mellon Middle School drew dozens of people, for and against the project.

Those who support the project believe turf will add playing time and value to the fields, which are too booked with youth sports games and practices to adequately rest and drain. Those against it question the cost of the turf's installation and ongoing maintenance, and worry the materials could cause health problems for kids and environmental problems for the surrounding area.

Commissioner John Bendel said the project is “the best alternative to meeting a long-standing need,” citing requests by recreational leagues and other stakeholders that Mt. Lebanon build more athletic fields or make fields more durable.

Critics submitted questions about whether the surface would adequately drain stormwater and whether chemicals in the plastic “grass” and crumb-rubber infill would hurt the environment.

One alternate officials could add onto the contract if the budget allows is a filtration system to reduce zinc in the field's stormwater runoff, Mt. Lebanon Manager Steve Feller said.

A 2010 study by the Connecticut Department of Public Health found that crumb-rubber turf does not pose health risks, but opponents maintain that such research remains largely inconclusive and cannot be applied broadly to all turf.

“We are concerned that there could be health effects,” Kathleen Hrabovsky, chairwoman of the community's Environmental Sustainability Board, told the Tribune-Review.

The advisory board overwhelmingly voted against the project a few months ago, and expressed hope that if it does move forward, it be done with organic infill from natural materials.

“If you're unsure of something,” she said, “you shouldn't move forward with it.”

Officials were unable to get a toxicologist to attend the meeting, though Bendel said one is expected to appear at a discussion session before the commissioners' meeting on June 23.

Andrew McNitt, a professor of soil science and director of the Center for Sports Surface Research at Penn State University, said based on his reading of studies in scientific journals over the years, cost-benefit analyses have shown turf fields as a viable option. Some 10,000 such fields exist across the country, he said.

“There are no red flags for me,” McNitt said of the overall effects of artificial turf, though he acknowledged that he does not have enough expertise on artificial turf to talk extensively about its environmental effects.

But he cited other studies suggesting that although artificial turf is more durable than grass, it has led to more injuries at least in the National Football League, given its more rigid surface.

Jake Flannick is a Trib Total Media freelance writer. Reach staff writer Matthew Santoni at 412-380-5625.

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