Monday, June 24, 2024

Dear residents of Cambridge,

To those of you who care about health and the environment, Watertown needs your support.

On Nov. 24, Cambridge’s Buckingham, Browne & Nichols School presented its plan for an athletic complex Nov. 24 to your neighbor, the Town of Watertown. The school bought a 6.1-acre Watertown lot – currently used as parking leased to Mount Auburn Hospital – from Mount Auburn Cemetery; the memorandum of understanding between the town and BB&N agreed on terms for sharing this “open green space,” which was how it came to the Watertown Town Council.

The presentation by head of school Jennifer Price was the first time Watertown residents were told that the school intended to install synthetic turf.

The school administration recently announced that the purchase of the Grove Street parcel in Watertown “not only unlocks a myriad of future opportunities for our students and campus master plan, it also advances BB&N’s strategic vision of principled engagement with our neighboring communities.”

As members of one of these lucky neighboring communities, we had to wonder what principles these were. There are more than 700 signers to the petition delivered to the BB&N administration detailing the many serious drawbacks to synthetic turf. We know the school is fully informed of the downside to this material, and yet it appears to have made a conscious decision to go ahead with it anyhow. We are left wondering what “principled engagement” must mean.

Let’s look at some arguments that can be made against this product.

It’s hazardous waste: Synthetic turf has a useful life of about 10 years. After that, it must be replaced. How is the old turf disposed of? Well, who cares, right? Synthetic turf has not been defined as hazardous waste yet in Massachusetts – not because it hasn’t been associated with a number of carcinogenic chemicals, but because the manufacturers are not required by law to disclose the chemical content of their turf product. (Kind of like fracking.) This means the information is not publicly available. So when it’s time to say goodbye, it does not have to go the route of officially designated hazardous waste, with a chain of custody and a series of signoffs until it reaches a landfill certified to accommodate it. It lands in someone else’s community, or by the side of the road where maybe it fell off the truck. And there it continues to poison someone else’s water supply, because maybe they don’t get municipal water from the MWRA. But out of sight, out of mind. There’s one principle.

It adds to the heat island effect: The literature available from many highly reputable institutional sources cites clear evidence that the heat island effect of this material is significantly higher than natural grass turf. It has been shown to create more heat than an asphalt parking lot, such as the one that is on the site now. Heat mapping technology shows that the synthetic turf field at Watertown’s Victory Field is hotter than both the grass track and the asphalt parking lot nearby – while scientific data is clear that climate change is causing more days every year when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees. East Watertown does not have many areas that are not affected by overheating, and this lot, next to Filippello Park and across the road from Mount Auburn Cemetery, has the potential to add to the inventory of our cool, comfortable spaces as natural turf, which could be enjoyed by everyone, not just young students while they are playing sports.

Watertown is in the process of beginning work on a climate action plan. People know about these things and do care. So, the “principled engagement” here would be the ability to ignore science when it does not suit one’s strategic plan and let someone else live with the problem – as we in Watertown will have to if synthetic turf is installed.

It would result from bad process: It may appear to BB&N that it has followed the correct process in moving forward with these plans. Technically, perhaps, this is true. But the memorandum of understanding that had been circulated before the Town Council meeting in November said BB&N would be providing “open green space.” It was not until the presentation of the drawings that it was revealed that green meant only the color of the synthetic turf. It took many people by surprise and the meeting did not provide time for community discussion or feedback. This is also not what we would call principled engagement.

We would like to offer up a principle for consideration – the Precautionary Principle, which dictates that when an activity threatens to harm human or environmental health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

We have seen over the years numerous times industry pressure clouded cause and effect on a potentially threatening product to allow it to continue to be sold. Tobacco, various pesticides and Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup are notorious examples.

Watertown has an unfortunate history of being a toxic dumping ground. Our town was poisoned for years by Hood rubber manufacturing and the U.S. Army Materials and Testing Laboratories. We are still living with the consequences all over town, but particularly in East Watertown. At the time, we didn’t know better. Today we do, and would like to say “never again.” And not just for Watertown, but for the unknown communities where this stuff will be dumped and leach into soil and water.

This principle is called “concern for the greater good.” The world needs it now more than ever.

If you share our concerns and have any connection to BB&N, please make your voices heard.

Signed by Watertown residents: Janet Buck, Elodia Thomas, Bruce Coltin, Joan Martin, Leo Martin, Meredith Fields, David Stokes, Susan LaDue, Libby Shaw, Barbara Ruskin and Eileen Ryan