The city’s decision to replace the real grass with a synthetic version sets off a tussle over the potential environmental and health risks of the move.
East Orange, NJ — Residents near the park in a small New Jersey neighborhood woke up earlier this month to the roar of heavy machinery: a meadow they’ve been begging officials to fix for years It was finally getting a facelift.
Then he came to know about the details.
grounds and over a dozen trees lining Colombian Park In East Orange, a densely crowded city in northern New Jersey, artificial turf was being bulldozed to make way for football and baseball fields and a rubberized running track. The plans also call for playgrounds and stationary exercise equipment, as well as 40 new plants.
Many nearby residents whose yards are directly adjacent to the park were furious, joining their counterparts in a growing number of cities across the state and country that are trying to block the use of a product such as It was once hailed as an all-weather replacement. For hard-to-maintain grasslands.
In Connecticut, some towns are concerned about the possible presence of chemicals that may pose health risks, passed restricted turf which uses the so-called crumb rubber Made from recycled car tires.
Synthetic turf has also raised concerns about injuries. In a gender discrimination lawsuit, members of the United States women’s national football team objected to the need to play it regularly. (Elite international men’s soccer matches are played almost exclusively on grass.)
After the remnants of Hurricane Ida caused widespread flash floods and caused more deaths in New Jersey than in any other state, the argument against eliminating the exploitative grasslands in Columbian Park took on new urgency. The nation, President Biden warned on a visit to hard-hit cities in the region, must respond to a new reality: a warming future with more frequent, intense storms.
“It was a mess in here,” Marjorie Perry, a developer and builder living in East Orange, said of the storm. “It looked like Niagara Falls.”
“We need to develop or maintain our green spaces,” she said. “If we don’t do that, floods will be a common recurrence.”
East Orange residents protesting the removal of grass and trees from Colombian parks said they were concerned that installing turf would increase neighborhood heat levels, contribute to flooding and add chemicals to the air that could harm people’s health. can cause damage.
“Removing our only green space by replacing natural grass with artificial turf and cutting down healthy old-growth trees will create a ‘heat island,’” says one online petition Which was signed by more than 250 people till Friday.
City officials defended the decision to use artificial turf, saying it was a safe and cost-effective way to improve the dilapidated park, increase access to residents of all ages, and eliminate the annual expense of maintaining the meadows. effective way.
“My administration is committed to renovating this park into a state-of-the-art green space and playground,” Mayor Ted R. Greene said in a statement. “We consulted with leading experts in this field and our park plans were finalized to adhere to best park practices, keeping the health and safety of our children as top priority.”
The evidence is inconclusive on the potential risks posed by artificial turf.
In 2007, a climate researcher at Columbia University found that synthetic turf in New York City increased 60 degrees hotter than grassThe surface temperature reaches 160 degrees during the summer.
About a decade later, the Environmental Protection Agency began studying artificial turf made from crumb-rubber infill, ending that “while chemicals are present,” human exposure “appears to be limited on the basis of what is released into the air.”
But the agency acknowledged the findings were incomplete, calling on three United States senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — to seek more funding in last year’s federal budget to complete the evaluation. inspired to.
“The community and parents deserve to know whether the chemicals used in these products have synergistic effects and are present in levels that pose a health risk,” the senator, all Democrats, said. wrote.
Park superintendent Dennis James said that in East Orange, at least six of the 17 trees that were being cut were dead or dead. The rest, he said, were removed because their root systems would have become unstable during the creation of turf areas, a potential security risk.
Officials said the city is in the process of eliminating all natural grasslands in the city in a phased manner.
Some residents with homes near Colombian Park said they welcomed any improvements to what they described as a long-neglected and under-utilized park.
“We’re begging them to do something with this park — begging,” said Lawrence Swett, whose home is directly across the park. “I see some trees there that should have fallen long ago.”
But Danielle Spooner, who lives across the street from the park and regularly takes her dog there, said the city ignored the environmental impact of the project.
As trees were being cut down behind her on a recent weekday, echoing loudly across the block, Ms Spooner said she was concerned about the turf’s health hazards, as well as a less obvious effect: insects. , loss of milkweed and bird life.
“Something like this is so priceless,” said 31-year-old Ms. Spooner. “To take it from us – it really feels like an attack.”
Many residents said they knew the park would eventually be renovated, but did not know whether the turf would be used or that so many trees would be removed.
The mayor’s spokesman, Connie Jackson, said park renovations, including a mention of the turf, were discussed at a community meeting in February. The City Council approved a $4.8 million construction contract in July, records show.
But several neighbors said residents of the 42 single and multifamily homes adjacent to the park had not been informed that the project was imminent, or that it would involve adding turf.
“No sheets,” said Carter Mathes, a former member of the city’s open space advisory board, whose backyard ends in the park. “No one is reaching out. There is no information.”
East Orange, a city of approximately 70,000 residents, is designated as a “.overloaded communityDue to its 18 percent poverty rate by state and high proportion of minority residents. (About 85 percent of residents are black; 11 percent are Latino, according to census data.)
One environmental justice law That was signed a year ago by Governor Philip D. Murphy, aimed at protecting neighborhoods that had already suffered immense damage from pollution. This requires the state’s environmental protection department Consider existing strains On public health before permits were granted in places like East Orange, which have been tagged as an excessive burden.
“The hypocrisy of the state’s perceived commitment to environmental equality seems like a joke – or cynical, at least – at this point,” said Mr Maths, who teaches African American literature. Rutgers University And started the online petition.
Sheila Y. Oliver, the lieutenant governor of New Jersey, is a longtime East Orange resident; His name is a. adorned in front New $41 Million Elementary School Which is next to the park.
While the park will not be controlled by the Board of Education, school students will be allowed to use it, Ms Jackson said. Ms Oliver declined to comment on the renovation of the park.
“It’s important to improve the park in a city where young people don’t have a lot of options for moving around,” said Christopher Coke, who oversees East Orange’s water department, at a community meeting in February.
Several homes along the park were flooded as a result of the basement storm, which has been linked to at least 30 deaths in New Jersey.
Royston Allman, a beekeeper and master gardener who lives about five blocks from the park, said he fears the turf will exacerbate flooding and be detrimental to air quality.
“It’s really simple,” he said. “Just put in the grass, leave some trees.”
Residents said they had repeatedly requested to discuss amendments to the project with city officials as they noticed that contractors had started work.
After most of the trees were cut down, Mr Maths said he was offered a meeting date: 6 October.