Guest columnist Nina Mankin: Of schools, PFAS, and where we go wrong

  • The track and field at Amherst Regional High School. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Thursday, December 08, 2022

I’m pretty sure mine is one of the voices that made the Amherst Town Council in November vote down the plan for artificial turf playing fields at ARHS. (The council reversed its decision this week.)

As a busy single mom of an elementary-age kid, I wasn’t aware of the situation until an email crossed my screen from a parent expressing concern over the health and environmental risks. This email chain expanded hugely as other parents added all the links you can imagine against the plastic product. Most critically, an email was forwarded from Amherst’s Board of Health chairperson stating the product is not safe and urging a no vote. It seemed like a no-brainer: email my council reps individually and the rest of the council as a whole saying I don’t want my budding high school athlete exposed to those chemicals.

What none of these communications mentioned was the current and historic state of the fields, what this has meant for student athletes (including robbing some of them of their chance to compete — with impacts that can be seen well past high school) and the years of work that went into developing this plan and finding the funding to get to this final moment of implementation.

Sound familiar? If you were around in 2017 when the school department put forth the plan it had spent 10 years developing for new schools, it might. I supported the schools project, but in that case as in this one there was an aspect of the plan (grade and school configuration then vs. the current situation of health and environmental risks) that needed to be more fully vetted in public before a final decision was made, to avoid predictable opposition after the fact.

I can’t believe the problem is just that we are a community of loud, entitled know-it-alls (that’s our culture, love it and hate it). The problem is also about messaging and participation. Most of us don’t have the bandwidth or radar to participate in these complex processes; we don’t have the time to be in the room throughout a planning phase, but we sure do have loud voices when that process results in something we don’t like. The issue is that we keep having these public fights after the decisions have been made. The million-dollar question (make that many millions) is: how do we keep this from happening?

I can only imagine how disappointed countless volunteers, student athletes and professional Amherst administrators feel right now. Maybe the only option in this case was plastic fields — whether I liked it or not. In that case, I needed to hear that argument sooner and I needed the risks and benefits clearly outlined — before a final decision was made. If my (uneducated but very invested) preference for grass fields is in fact a feasible solution, I suggest that those in charge of making this plan needed to either actively engage parents with a convincing argument that artificial turf is preferable and “safe enough,” or go with a greener alternative much earlier. Because, really, is anyone surprised by the recent upset given how passionate our community is about health and environmental issues?

There will always be opposition and it’s easy to decry we Amherst-ites who don’t do the work but claim to know better than those who do: Projects are hard to plan and easy to shoot down. But if the initial planning stages of these expensive and complex town undertakings do not include greater requirements for early community input — a “now or never” solicited well before funding is secured — we are destined for more waste and heartbreak.

Nina Mankin is a local business owner and a fundraising and community development professional.