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Consultant for synthetic turf fields on islands comes under scrutiny

 Synthetic turf at Camp Randall stadium, Wisconsin.
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Synthetic turf at Camp Randall stadium, Wisconsin.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and time. 

A consultant hired to advise Nantucket on whether to replace natural fields with synthetic turf has ignited a fierce debate on the islands. A story in E&E news, an energy and environment news service, claims that Dr. Laura Green has been making false statements about a toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS when she consults with New England towns, while repeatedly citing her work for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). CAI’s Eve Zuckoff caught up with journalists Ariel Wittenberg and Ev Crunden to explore their reporting. She also spoke with Dr. Green

First, a conversation with the E&E reporters.

Eve: Ariel Wittenberg, thank you so much for joining us.

Ariel: Of course.

Eve: And Ev Crunden, thank you for being here.

Ev: Thank you for having me.

Eve: So Dr. Laura Green was hired by the Nantucket Public Schools as a technical consultant on the proposed turf fields and athletic facilities upgrade project. Ariel, let’s start with you. What did you learn about Green's background and how she got involved in this project on Nantucket?

Ariel: So we know she has a bachelor's degree in chemistry, and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she focused on nutrition. She's a board certified toxicologist, and, if you look at her resume, she has very often worked for industry clients defending chemicals. Essentially, it's not just PFAS and not just artificial turf. We found instances of her defending PCBs and downplaying the health impacts of coal plant air pollution. But what makes these cases interesting is that it's members of the community sometimes using taxpayer dollars to hire someone to come and defend a chemical, as opposed to the product manufacturer or the chemical manufacturer hiring a consultant to defend the product.

Eve: And at the heart of this story, you allege that Green has misrepresented not only the danger of PFAS in turf, but her own credentials, right? Ev, can you walk us through those those two things?

Ev: So first, we noticed in her comments to public meetings and in a lot of her testimony, she would frequently invoke EPA. We're reporters who cover EPA pretty closely, so we were intrigued. We reached out to the agency. And in no uncertain terms, the agency said: ‘We disavow these statements’ [when it came to] a lot of the comments that she was making about PFAS. And increasingly, we sought to clarify what her position was and how she was connected to the agency. And there's a special designation, special government employees or SGEs, and they're typically consultants, experts in their fields who are brought in, but they have very limited roles within the agency, usually limited to 130 days per year, limited terms. And as far as the nature of her work, we quickly learned she hadn't really done any work with EPA on PFAS. That really isn't what they've sought her expertise on. And the more we looked, the more it seemed that she had really overstated her connections with the agency and was really invoking this government authority on environmental issues in a way that the EPA didn't appreciate.

Eve: I want to talk more about things Dr. Laura Green said about about PFAS. At one point you write in your piece, Green said at a September meeting on Nantucket, "There is no reliable evidence that PFAS harms human health." Unpack that. What evidence is there that PFAS harms human health? And also, what evidence is there that these turf fields would be damaging to human health on the island?

Ev: So PFAS are an enormous family of chemicals, thousands upon thousands of chemicals, and we actually know very little about most of them. The ones that we do know a lot about, like the chemical PFOA, is probably the most recognizable for people. There was a movie starring Mark Ruffalo called 'Dark Waters' that really centers around that chemical and its health impacts. It's one of two very well-studied and very-well researched PFAS, and the EPA has looked at designating it as a likely carcinogen. It's been pretty well established that there are severe human health impacts stemming from PFOS, another chemical. And PFAS are in virtually everything. They're in cookware; they're in dental floss; they’re in firefighting foam. They’re just absolutely everywhere. And they are in artificial turf. It's unclear [when it comes to] the PFAS that are in artificial turf, what their health impacts might be. We don't really know a lot about them. What was interesting that we found with her comments was that she would acknowledge there's PFAS in the in the turf. She'd say: ‘There's no health implications.' We don't necessarily know that. We don't know that there are. We do know that PFOA, this other chemical that's very well-studied, has implications for human health. And she would repeatedly downplay those implications in her comments, which set off some alarm bells for us.

Eve: How well-traveled is Dr. Green? How many school committees and towns have relied on her expertise about turf fields?

Ariel: So we we know that she's obviously been on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. We've also found her talking in Bennington, Vermont, and in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The New Hampshire case is actually really fascinating because the City Council there is debating an already installed turf field that the manufacturer who sold it to them promised would be PFAS-free. Since then, environmental groups there have tested the field and found evidence that there could be PFAS. They found a lot of total organic flourine, which is a signal that there could be PFAS. [The environmental groups] told the City Council this, and then also sent the City Council a video of Laura Green speaking on Martha's Vineyard, explaining 'Yes, there's PFAS in turf.' And what the City Council did was turn around and hire Laura Green. So it's a really interesting case because instead of being like, 'Oh my God, we were sold something that we maybe didn't want because we didn't want a field with PFAS,' they're instead hiring an expert to say, 'Oh, actually, it's OK if there's PFAS in here.'

Eve: Where has this story moved since you first published it, and where does it go from here?

Ariel: Well, certainly we have people, I think, talking about it on the islands because they now have the information about Laura Green's background and that EPA actually is not supporting her claims. And in Oak Bluffs, the Board of Health is going to be considering a resolution [on Tuesday] to basically ban artificial turf with PFAS, which as far as we know, that's the only artificial turf there is.

Eve: Well, we've linked to your story on our website. Ariel Wittenberg and Ev Crunden, thank you so much for joining us.

———

After the E&E story came out, Dr. Laura Green submitted a letter of resignation to the EPA, she said, to avoid being further “harassed.” But she later changed her mind, she told CAI, and decided to withdraw her request to resign. She said she did this after colleagues asked her to reconsider.

In an email last week, the Nantucket school committee said it had not yet made a decision about Green’s future as a consultant.

After talking with the E&E reporters, CAI's Eve Zuckoff spoke with Dr. Green for close to an hour. In that interview, Dr. Green called the E&E story mean-spirited, defamatory, and libelous, though she said she didn’t plan to sue.

When asked to explain why, at a September meeting on Nantucket, she had said, “there is no reliable evidence that PFAS harms human health,” Dr. Green said the problem is one of communication.

"I think the simple message and the simple truth is that some PFAS from some sources — like firefighting foams and sewage sludge and septic tanks and industrial discharges — some PFAS are quite worrisome," Dr. Green said. "And other PFAS are quite inert. And some are water soluble, and some aren't, and some are regulated by EPA at part per trillion levels, and some are never going to be regulated by EPA at part per trillion levels...  So I think it's — I mean, maybe it's the fault of me and others who don't have ten minutes to just rattle on like this, to try to explain it. Maybe it's the fault of people with axes to grind. And so it's convenient to lump together compounds of concern and benign compounds and just call them all one thing. It's regrettable."

The future of PFAS on turf fields will face more scrutiny on Martha's Vineyard on Tuesday, December 14, at 10 A.M. when the Oak Bluffs Board of Health discusses draft regulations that would ban the installation of artificial turf containing PFAS.

Information on how to join the meeting can be found here. If passed, it could derail plans to install a turf field at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.