Home > Our Work > Blog > Policy Notes: February 2024
Preservation Mirror by Diana Wind

Preservation Mirror by Diana Wind

Policy Notes: February 2024

Artificial Turf Concerns Rising Among Commissioners and the Public. Policy Notes are designed to update the public on the activities of the Pinelands Commission, which have been summarized by Pinelands Preservation Alliance staff who attend all public meetings of the Commission.

March 6, 2024


Artificial Turf Field Issues Gaining Attention in the Pinelands and Beyond

This month we saw the first fruits of having someone with an extensive water quality background on the Commission. It was during the discussion of an application to build an artificial turf field that Commissioner Rittler Sanchez asked about the fate of the stormwater that would be soaking through these fields. Heavy metals including chromium and lead, are known to leach off of artificial turf fields into any water that passes through them. This runoff water can include zinc, which is essential for plant growth in small quantities but can prove toxic when plants are exposed in large quantities. This typically isn’t a huge concern, as the zinc will quickly adsorb onto soil particles that it encounters, remaining stuck in place before it can reach any plants in dangerous quantities. However, zinc’s propensity to stay in place can be altered if the soil has a different pH–this is true of many substances, not just zinc.

Altering the acidity of soil is used as a tool to help clean up contaminated sites because it can be used to release or immobilize certain pollutants. Check out this episode of the Hazard NJ podcast, which describes how this characteristic is being used to remediate pollution at Price’s Pit in Egg Harbor Township. The pine barrens are notorious for their acidic soils, so we can expect metals and chemicals to move differently in this low-pH environment. Although pollution concerns associated with artificial turf grass are relevant state-wide, the unique conditions of the Pinelands could potentially enhance this threat. The human population of the Pinelands is also particularly vulnerable to water pollution, as many residents directly draw their water from wells tapping the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer. This aquifer is unconfined–and therefore open to whatever may leach down from the surface.

Do artificial turf fields pose a unique threat to the Pinelands environment and people? This question had apparently never been considered by the Pinelands Commission before. Before a final vote was taken on whether to approve the artificial turf fields that were the subject of an application at the February meeting, staff reminded those in attendance of two things: 1) the Commission does not regulate construction materials and 2) the Commission has regularly approved these kinds of fields in the past–and this field is no different from the ordinary. Indeed, in the last year alone, four such fields were approved. We only recently started hearing dissent from the Commissioners when Nicholas Asselta joined the Commission in early 2023. Asselta represents Cumberland County, which has many natural turfgrass farms. Every time that artificial turf fields have appeared on the agenda, Commissioner Asselta has consistently spoken against them–although his comments usually focus on the increased expenses and injuries that may be associated with their use. With the recent addition of Rittler Sanchez to the Commission, hopefully we’ll continue to hear more resistance to the environmental issues associated with artificial turf. Despite the protests of these two Commissioners, the application for the two new artificial turf fields in Egg Harbor City was approved.

pipeline protest save the aquifer New jersey pinelands commission meeting
Locals have been fighting to keep the aquifer safe for years.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has been putting out a fantastic series of articles on the health and environmental problems associated with artificial turf grass fields. The most recent article focused on soccer players. It includes a profile of a University of Washington women’s soccer team coach who noticed that many of her former players were battling cancer. Leveraging the network that she had built over her career of coaching on artificial turf fields, this coach found hundreds of cancer cases. Standing alone, this anecdotal evidence might be easily dismissed by statisticians who require much larger datasets to identify cancer clusters (Dan Fagin’s book “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation” does a great job explaining this methodology for non-statisticians).

However, a particularly compelling facet of this coach’s observations is that almost half of the cases were in goalkeepers: the one team position that undoubtedly spends the most time in contact with the artificial turf field. If exposure to the artificial turf was not a health risk, then we would expect an even distribution of cancer cases among all of the team members. The percentage of team members who play in the goalkeeper position varies from team to team, as the number of substitute players associated with each position fluctuates. However, even in a very unbalanced scenario in which a team kept a deep bench of 3 goalkeepers, and no backups for the remaining 10 field positions, goalkeepers would still only represent 23% of the total team roster. Researchers should study cancer incidence among players according to their level of exposure to artificial turf.

Many local residents are not waiting around for science to confirm their suspicions that artificial turf fields are not good for our health. ‘Turf wars’ have been breaking out in Montclair, Westfield, Scotch Plains, and Ridgewood. The Inquirer article also details local resistance to artificial turf inclusion in the plans to renovate FDR Park in Philadelphia. Artificial turf fields figure prominently into the planned makeover of Liberty State Park. Amidst rising awareness and concern about the PFAS (“forever chemicals”; Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances) and heavy metals associated with these fields, the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center has recommended a moratorium on the use of artificial turf surfaces until their safety can be demonstrated. As a first step here in New Jersey, the Sierra Club is calling for an end to the practice of funding new artificial turf fields through the NJDEP Green Acres program. Towns can also pass local ordinances to ban their use: Cape May City has made progress towards this end.

Mapping a Circuitous Path to Climate Resilience

Climate change has already been changing life in the Pinelands, bringing both increased fire risk as well as flooding due to increased precipitation and sea-level rise. It’s about time that we reassess what and where we build considering these threats. The Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) which governs the type and intensity of development permissible in different areas of the Pinelands was adopted in 1980. At the time, climate change did not factor into its design–but even today, the CMP still makes no direct reference to this concept. How should an agency like the Pinelands Commission regulate using a guiding document and map that does not reflect the current and projected future reality?

At the behest of the climate committee, Pinelands Commission staff have been performing a GIS mapping analysis to “investigate whether changes to Pinelands Management Area boundaries would be an effective means of mitigating hazards associated with climate change”; you can read the report here, starting on page 27. Several factors of interest were overlaid, including susceptibility to wildfire, flooding, and sea level rise, as well as habitat for threatened & endangered species. Areas where these factors were particularly high and overlapped were candidates for subsequent rounds of analysis that considered the size, status, and regional context of each. The results showed that most of the areas of concern are wetlands that are already excluded from development. This is not surprising given that approximately 25% of the surface area of the Pinelands is wetlands (Morgan et al., 1988). Given this result, one of the major final recommendations was to fully enforce the 300-foot buffer that is sometimes waived/reduced between the proposed development and wetlands.

Dirty Dumping

A recent article in the Pine Barrens Tribune described illegal dumping that occurred in Pemberton the week of February 5. Dozens of truckloads of material from at least one recycling facility in North Jersey were dumped onto wetlands. Knowledgeable individuals from multiple organizations contacted every relevant authority in an attempt to stop the dumping. Responding officials either did not have the authority to get the work to stop or were willing to accept excuses for a lack of permits. This episode underscores the ineffectiveness of relying on towns to enforce Pinelands rules. We need some other means that can stop damage in progress, rather than just waiting to clean things up after-the-fact when towns fail to act. The NJDEP does have a ‘hotline’ that is meant to fill this role, which Dr. Emile DeVito of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation described in a recent Pinelands Commission meeting as a ‘coldline’ since these cases can take months to resolve and see some–if any–resolution.

Although we cannot expect town officials to have memorized the entirety of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP), a pretty good rule of thumb is that almost nothing can be done in wetlands or wetlands buffer zones–any deviation from this would require an extensive application and justification to the Pinelands Commission. If you’re ever curious what wetlands have been mapped in the Pinelands, you can use the Pinelands Interactive Map tool to find out. In the image below, wetlands are indicated with a dark blue color, and the surrounding 300-foot buffer with a light blue color. Light blue lines enclose the parcels under common ownership where the dumping occurred. It does not take any special training to see that every square inch of these properties in Pemberton are composed entirely of wetlands or wetlands buffer.

Notable Applications

Two new applications were started in the last couple of months to finally demolish some of the abandoned buildings at the former Rowan College campus in Pemberton. NJ.com recently reported on vandalism that had beset the property, including a fire in early 2023. When seeking to demolish a building that is 50 years or older, landowners are required to apply to the Pinelands Commission which will investigate whether there are important historical/cultural resources that are potentially threatened by demolition plans. Despite the search for a new owner, the college itself seems to be moving the demolition plans forward, as “Rowan College at Burlington County” is still listed as the official applicant.

A third township has started the MOA process to build accessibility improvements to some of its nature trails: Evesham township is seeking to improve trails in the Black Run Preserve and restore habitat that has been damaged by off-road vehicles in the process.

Pinelands Municipal Council Watch

Months since the council last met: 17

The by-laws mandate that the council at least hold an annual meeting “between the third day and the tenth day of March.” This 2023 deadline came and went with no meeting. With no anticipated meetings currently scheduled before Sunday 3/10, it looks like the council will miss this deadline again for 2024.

Comments are closed.

News, Events & More

Stay Connected