SILVER SPRING – Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is having Montgomery Blair High School’s artificial turf field replaced after a retest showed the field was unsafe and within a year of the end of its useful life.
John Nissel, deputy director of operations, said the warrantee for the field managed by M-NCPPC is due to expire in August.
“It’s like if you buy a car and it wears out before the warrantee; it’s certainly not what you paid for,” said Nissel, referring to the field lasting seven years and four months.
He said M-NCPPC had planned to replace the field about 10 years after FieldTurf installed it.
The field is supposed to last eight years from the date of installation, according to the warrantee.
M-NCPPC hired Shaw Sports Turf to replace the field, including organic infill made from coconut to replace the crumb rubber, Nissel said.
He said M-NCPPC would not have known that the old field was unsafe for play if a parent hadn’t contacted the field company FieldTurf to say she saw excess black crumb rubber laying on the surface of the field. FieldTurf then met with the parent.
“The fibers start to break down, what you’re seeing is a lot of crumb rubber, so that raised an eyebrow with us,” Nissel said. “When they came out and did the test and we did the subsequent test, we felt that there was an issue.”
Then M-NCPPC’s third-party contractor, Leading Design and Development Sports, reported the field was unsafe in five of 10 testing locations, measured by a number called g-max score. If the g-max score exceeds 200, the field is unsafe for play, according to the ASTM 1936- 10 standard for shock absorption used by several synthetic turf owners including Montgomery County Public Schools and M-NCPPC.
“Values of 200 g-max and above are considered values at which life-threatening head injuries may be expected to occur,” according to the same ASTM standard, citing historical data.
The artificial turf fields at Richard Montgomery and Walter Johnson high schools drew community attention in November when word spread that the fields had failed their g-max tests before passing a second test by a different tester following field repairs. Athletic Field Consultants Inc. tester Jeff Clise reported the surfaces were in compliance with the standard but should have been replaced within a few years.
Ryan Teeter, an inspector for LDD Sports, reported not only that the fibers of the field were deteriorating, as did the maintenance inspector in August, but also that maintenance work on the field caused the field fibers to wear and fray.
“Due to the excessive consistent fiber wear, compacted infill and surface infill, we do not recommend competition use of this surface until implementation of proper professional maintenance services to address the items noted within this report as well as improve the conditions of this athletic field,” Teeter said in his report from Oct. 14. “The severely worn fibers are not able to withstand proper routine maintenance by the owner due the fragile fibers shearing off the surface of the infill.”
M-NCPPC closed the field as soon as it received the report Oct. 18, Nissel said.
“Failing g-max is the biggest concern when you do a field test like that. When you fail a g-max test then you subject your players to a concussion (risk),” Nissel said.
As a temporary solution, the MNCPPC had FieldTurf repair the field Oct. 17 and 18 by replacing parts of the “carpet” that hold the crumb rubber in place to bring the field back into compliance with the ASTM standard, Nissel said.
“They’ll actually cut that piece of turf out, take it out, patch it in with a new piece of turf, and then they’ll infill it with the crumb rubber,” Nissel said.
Nissel said the organization began considering a replacement after reading Teeter’s report. Then it sought a company in December to replace the artificial turf.
A FieldTurf contractor, Clise of Athletic Turf Consultants, performed an annual test in August and said it complied with the ASTM standard and was safe with an average g-max score of 166, according to the inspection report.
Spokesperson Melissa Chotiner said M-NCPPC did not have reason to be concerned about the field following Clise’s test.
“To our knowledge the field was safe,” Chotiner said.
Clise said the field scored below 200 on the g-max but noted deteriorating fibers, or the “grass.”
“All test points on this field met the ASTM g-max requirement,” Clise said. “The fibers across the field, including the inlays, are heavily worn and are brittle and breaking off. This is a result of the age of the field, amount of play it receives, possible UV degradation and mechanical wear.”
Clise said maintenance crews were repairing the field while he was testing it.
“The center of the field was low on infill; therefore, I instructed the Montgomery County Parks maintenance crew that was onsite to add infill to the surrounding areas and to check the infill depth,” Clise said.
Chotiner said M-NCPPC was aware that the fibers were deteriorating, but Teeter’s test made it clear that it was time to replace the field.
Nissel said repairing the field before testing it is a common practice.
“I don’t feel one way or the other about it,” Clise said about adding infill. “That crumb rubber, it gets scootched off the field. You know when you run and play, that stuff works itself out of the field.”
However, several members of a local community group called Safe Healthy Playing Fields disagreed with Nissel and said they are concerned about synthetic turf fields being tested after crumb rubber, the material that makes the “grass” stand up, is added.
Bailey Condrey, a founding member of the group, alleges that adding crumb rubber to a field prior to testing is deceptive.
“G-max is supposed to be a test on a surprise basis,” he said. “If you allow the owner of the field to fluff it into compliance before it’s tested, then it’s not a true indication of how the field is when the users are on it.”
Teeter was not available for interview before deadline.
On Oct. 18, Clise retested the field while repairs were still taking place. At first the field failed in one location, but then a repair contractor, King Fields, added crumb rubber to the artificial turf, and the field passed with a score of 156.75 when it was retested, the tester said in a letter to M-NCPPC Oct. 18. Two of five new testing locations scored average g-maxes of 195 and 192.
Teeter reported Oct. 19 that the field had returned to compliance with an average g-max score of 172.