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News / Northwest

Whitman College students clash over artificial turf field

By Loryn Kykendall, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
Published: March 16, 2023, 7:36am

WALLA WALLA — Students at Whitman College in Walla Walla are opposing the installation of an artificial turf field that is scheduled to be installed this fall.

The project, which was fully funded through alumni and friend donations totaling $3.6 million, will be located at the current site of the athletics field between U.S. 12 and DeSales Catholic High School. The college announced the plan to install artificial turf in November 2022. It will serve as a multi-purpose surface to be used for soccer, lacrosse, baseball practices and club sports such as ultimate frisbee and intramural programs.

In response to the announcement, McCoy Hennes, a senior defender on the soccer team, created a petition to stop the project, citing environmental harm as the reason behind the petition. It has now received almost 250 signatures.

“In general, artificial turf seems to be a step backward from a sustainable future,” Hennes said. “I think this should be of concern to everyone.”

Hennes states in the petition that artificial turf contains “forever chemicals” that do not naturally break down.

“These chemicals are linked to cancer, liver problems, thyroid issues, birth defects, kidney disease, decreased immunity and other serious health problems and affect humans and wildlife alike,” the petition states.

Gina Ohnstad, spokesperson for Whitman College, said the college’s decision to move forward with the project was made Friday, March 10.

Workers are expected to break ground within the next few weeks.

“The college is following all guidelines of the Environmental Protection Agency when it comes to the installation of the new field,” Ohnstad said. “The FieldTurf chosen for the project exceeds the standards set forth by the EPA and includes a plant-based organic infill that was intentionally chosen instead of rubber-based infill to lessen the environmental impact.”

Several student lacrosse players voiced support for the turf at the Associated Students of Whitman College meeting on Sunday, March 5. One athlete at the March 5 meeting said the current grass field put lacrosse players at a disadvantage.

“We desperately need it (the artificial turf); we’ve needed it for a very long time,” she said. “The field is 22 years old. Every single other field for every other school in this conference — they all have turf fields.”

The same athlete also addressed the concerns about the use of harmful chemicals. She said Kim Chandler, the college’s athletics director, was aware of the environmental concerns and factored them into the decision.

Korin Wheaton, another lacrosse player, added that the grass field also came with environmental drawbacks.

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“The studies provided do not pertain to the longevity of the turf field and research that Kim Chandler has conducted,” Wheaton said, referring to the studies mentioned in the petition. “The benefits to turf include an even surface for rain and snow, it’s controllable, easy to maintain and cost-effective for a 30-year lifetime.”

Several lacrosse players mentioned that the team had been forced to reschedule games in the past because of the condition of the grass field.

Fraser Moore, interim president of Associated Students of Whitman College, said a review had not been conducted to compare the environmental impact of grass versus turf.

“The direction of this proposal is not to outright say that artificial turf is bad,” Moore said. “It’s to consider environmental implications when making that decision. That study was not conducted.”

Associated Students of Whitman College voted in favor of a resolution March 5 to take an official stand against the installation of the turf field until an environmental review was conducted.

“Whitman College should adjust its timeline for the implementation of the turf field,” the resolution states. “If the environmental review clearly shows that turf is the less environmentally friendly option, then ASWC would oppose construction of a turf field.”

Ohnstad said the college worked with an environmental consultant to assess the effects of synthetic turf on soil.

“As is common with many college decisions, we have received both positive and negative feedback about the FieldTurf,” she said. “A field upgrade from grass to a durable, all-weather training and competition surface has been something that Whitman has been hoping to complete for years at the request of the Athletics Department.”

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