San Francisco’s Toxic Turf War Rages On
It’s never a good sign when a relationship both begins and ends with a lie. That’s exactly what’s happened in San Francisco’s Public-Private Partnership with the City Fields Foundation and their love affair with Toxic Turf. The mission was allegedly to provide “expanded use” of playfields by conversion to artificial turf with toxic waste tire infill and nighttime sports lighting and to eliminate “rutted and dangerous” play conditions on natural grass fields suffering from years of neglect. The result has been a privatization scheme rife with subversion of public process and an atmosphere in City politics where lobbying influences (and handmaidens–corporate sponsorship opportunities, and an All-Access pass to City Hall for wealthy donors) trumped expressed concerns of parents, environmentalists, and, most importantly, the youth who use the fields most.
The City’s attachment to Toxic Turf began with a donation pledged by the Fisher Brothers (GAP, Old Navy, Banana Republic BillionHeirs). Their private foundation, the City Fields Foundation, would control private contracts which stipulated the type of material to be used–artificial turf with toxic waste tire infill. The City would pitch into the pitches with bond money (a poor investment for a short-term “improvement” of field surfaces which would prove to require an additional taxpayer funded bond measure). Nowhere in the bond measures couched in it’s-for-the-kids language did the words “artificial turf” appear.
On the side, the City’s Rec and Park Department found a somewhat reliable revenue stream from CalRecycle, the state’s recycling board charged with helping to alleviate the state’s 40 million per year waste tire disposal problem. CalRecycle launched a popular Tire Derived Product (TDP) Grant Program which the City cashed in on through creative use of toxic tire waste–a study of TDP floor covering in daycare centers for toddlers, playground resurfacing, landscaping use, playfield infill, and, perhaps appropriately, where the rubber meets the road in road resurfacing and repair. Under the flexible terms of the terms of the grants, crumb was shuffled, and in one instance not used at all for its intended purpose. A request for immediate disclosure from CalRecycle exposed that lie. In a communication justifying the release of remaining funds of a $150,000 grant, a Rec and Park employee stated that “rubber would not be used” on a City Fields facility (6 artificial turf pitches) which was the original site the grant applied to. Today, there is an estimated 1 million pounds of toxic waste tire crumb rubber on those fields. State and local taxpayers might hope against hope for refund checks.
More insidious has been the deceptive PR campaign championing the use of Toxic Turf on the City’s ballfields. Despite the City’s own admission that the artificial turf with waste tire infill is toxic to a degree, shills for the City Field Foundation stuck to a well-scripted playbook. In what was called in the New York Times “an inventory scam” and a “privatization scheme”, San Francisco’s neglected grass field problem was catastrophized, one of the country’s best-funded Rec and Park departments was depicted as impoverished despite receiving bonds totaling 1/2 billion dollars in the prior 2 decades, and Toxic Turf was touted, by repetition in an expensive PR campaign, as the only and final solution.
Evolution is a constant. Four billion years of it produced the code for DNA in natural grass on which athletic pursuits are practiced and played and which is 50% similar to that humans contain. Likewise, the gamesmanship of the kind that dominates San Francisco politics has evolved on a far shorter timescale in far more engineered fashion. The former evolution is, unquestionably, smarter and more sustainable. The latter has reached it’s logical endpoint. Constituents’ baseline tolerance for corruption has been exceeded. Linked-in NPO’s in the Toxic Turf scam are funded by the same bad actors and sit at the table set by those referred to ubiquitously as the City Family. Obeisance is the rule of order. Lobbyists, functionaries, and career politicians (some in robes), play parts in a Byzantine drama which the public funds and, barring complete naivety or suspension of disbelief, bears witness to as captive audience or simply eschews in disgust. The Brothers Fisher and Stephen Bechtel, born into the Forbes 500 richest in the US fund the City Fields Foundation and a friendly urban planning organization called SPUR. So too, another Bay Area billionaire, a self-made man, Charles Schwab, is a big contributor. What strings are being pulled–Ryder Cup (Schwab), real estate, pro-sports (Fishers & Schwab), cash for toxic waste (Bechtel), influence, prestige–by their minions who act in concert with the City while working on the private contracts end of public/private deals are speculative; however, fingers leveled in the general direction of those invested indicate cats around something that does not pass the dead fish smell test. FBI investigations of campaign funding and improprieties in the use of public funds as well as IRS investigations into the current ops of 501(c) NPO’s (one, the Parks Alliance, who receives City funding and acts as a revenue collecting agent) have become routine.
A California Coastal Commission Appeal, a California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit, and a Citizens’ Ballot Measure Initiative Action were seen as threats to business as usual. The last, on November 2014’s ballot, got the Cadillac treatment by the Billionaires Club. First the Mayor, then 7 City Supervisors queued up to push the button on the nuclear option–a last-minute poison pill, a proposed ordinance aimed at defeating the Citizens’ Initiative and solidifying power and control by attempting to limit future Citizen Actions. A million dollar investment on the part of the Fishers (and the Mayor and the Parks Alliance) barely bought the election win over a nominally funded volunteer run organization outspent 20:1. Ground Zero in the battle, San Francisco’s world-renowned Golden Gate Park.
Citizens rallied to support the natural Urban Environment in Golden Gate Park, an oasis of respite from pavement, pollution, and stress carved by 7 generations of toil from 1000 acres of sand dunes in the far-western outerlands of San Francisco. Reasons varied–money, aesthetics, environmental, and human health concerns. Among health concerns were questions about the lack of scientific evidence supporting the alleged safety of chronic exposure to toxic waste tire infill. Closely linked to those concerns were the seemingly inexplicable engineering plan for all of the City’s Toxic Turf constructions which include a hazmat liner to protect the groundwater supply from supposedly safe runoff. As the political season approached and wore on, news of a cancer cluster in soccer goalies broke, the EPA won an historic suit to force East SF Bay cities to stem the flow of sewerage into the Bay, and San Francisco broke ground on its Groundwater Supply Project to add groundwater from under the proposed site of the Toxic Turf fields to the City’s drinking water. It was a true watershed moment, it would have seemed, for the City and for the effort to protect the Park and public heath from the threat of environmental toxins. The moment was lost in a sea of cash and deceptive campaign propaganda.
An appeal to the patron saint of the San Francisco, who is also the patron saint of Ecology, would begin “Everything goes somewhere…” The same could be said of the energy put into stopping the flood of environmental toxins into places where we conduct the business and pleasure of living and playing.
That appeal, unlike the CEQA appeal, has been answered. Those returns are now in.
A Citizen’s Enforcement Action alleging violations of the San Francisco Public Works Code is in the process of being filed on the local level. Allegations include the Public/Private partners’ failure to test the toxic runoff from multiple Toxic Turf fields and call into question compliance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that San Francisco holds (and, perhaps violates) with the EPA and Regional Water Board to pump treated and overflow screened combined sewage into the Bay and Ocean. The City’s Toxic Turf fields engineered with hazmat liners waste every drop of water that falls on them to the sewer, creating tens of millions of gallons of toxic sewerage.
At the California state level, a bill has been introduced to put a moratorium on the construction of artificial turf fields with toxic waste tire infill.
On the National level, more and more advocates for public health, activists, and environmentalists have worked to defeat the ostrich syndrome. A cash cow disguised as a cradle to cradle design put forward as a field of dreams is now seen for what it really is…Toxic Turf, not for kids’ play, not for human consumption or contact, no longer the industry standard, a poor substitute for its natural predecessor–good, old-fashioned grass.