A bitter, months-long battle over the College’s plan to renovate the Pickard Field complex has come to an end at the town level, following the planning board’s full approval of the project at a meeting on January 18. Construction on the project—which includes the reorientation of the athletic fields and the installation of turf on three fields, in addition to new seating and lighting fixtures—is expected to begin later this semester, pending approval by the Board of Trustees next week.
The planning board approved most parts of the project on December 13 but tabled the application due to concerns about the turf containing PFAS chemicals. To grant full approval, the board required the College to obtain an independent, third-party review of the turf material—in addition to the guarantee by the manufacturer, FieldTurf, that no PFAS chemicals are added during the manufacturing process.
At the January 18 meeting, Russ Abel, a representative from Sanborn, Head & Associates, an environmental consulting company, presented the lab’s findings. Abel explained that while some PFAS were found in the turf material, the level was below even the most conservative regulatory limits and thus does not pose a significant threat to the environment or to public health.
The project faced significant backlash throughout the fall from neighbors, faculty and students who raised objections about not only PFAS contamination but also tree removal and noise and light pollution. At the December planning board meeting, community members encouraged the board to proceed cautiously in its consideration of the project and take into account the public’s concerns.
Katie Kurtz ’24 and Sejal Prachand ’24 expressed their hope that the planning board would require the College to continue testing the turf and monitoring for PFAS levels after the project is completed, also noting that they understand the benefit of the transition to turf.
“While I don’t use these fields as my primary practice field, I’ve had many workouts on them and I greatly see the benefit [of the changes],” Kurtz, a member of the sailing team, said during the December planning board meeting.
“I am also an environmental studies student at Bowdoin, and as someone who has taken many classes including classes that have studied the effects of PFAS … [I] propose that not only is this product tested in the ways that have already been done … but also [that] there is continued monitoring after the project has been started and for years to come,” Kurtz added.
The planning board decided to table the application pending independent review of the turf, but did not add a provision requiring additional monitoring. At an informational meeting open to the public on December 8, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Matt Orlando defended the College’s choice to not continue to test the outflow from the fields.
“It’s a great idea, but the risk is we don’t know what else is going into [the outflow],” Orlando said. “It might not be from us.”
The lack of continued monitoring, as well as the trace amounts of PFAS identified in Sanborn, Head & Associates’ findings, have left critics disappointed in the College’s environmental stewardship.
Associate Professor of Biology Vladimir Douhovnikoff, who lives adjacent to the property and also teaches classes in forest ecology, expressed his frustration with the handling of the project, especially with the College’s backing away from its promise of PFAS-free turf.
“I think we can do better…. Honestly, I think an institution like Bowdoin should be demanding—really demanding—PFAS-free turf,” Douhovnikoff said.
Sam Cooper ’24, who attended both the informational meeting and the planning board meeting in December, similarly highlighted the contradictions between the College’s professed environmental values and the practical choices made throughout this process.
“I think Bowdoin is a very two-faced institution,” Cooper said. “We love to promote all of these good ecological things that we do. There’s a solar field. We’re carbon neutral because we buy a whole bunch of carbon credits…. I think this is just one of those few examples that really exemplifies the other side of Bowdoin that they try not to really show, which is cutting down a whole lot of trees without much regard for them and beyond that, really disregarding what the public wants.”
Douhovnikoff and Cooper both echoed concerns from earlier meetings about the College’s lack of continued monitoring.
“I’m disappointed…. If it was my environment, I would want to monitor it,” Douhovnikoff said. “But we are intentionally choosing not to monitor it. And we’re not being very clear on the justification for that … honestly, I think it’s just we don’t want the liability of it and we want to hide in the background noise of the other PFAS that’s out there.”
Despite these concerns, Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan emphasized the value that the turf fields will bring to student athletes.
“I think everyone associated with the project has learned a lot about turf as we’ve gone through this process,” Ryan said. “And given the knowledge that has been shared with us from our consultants and the work that we’ve done, I feel very comfortable with the decision to move forward with turf. There’s a lot of science behind the limited, if any, risks to the environment or our athletes associated with playing on turf.”
The project still must be approved by the Board of Trustees during their meetings on campus next week. Asked about potential challenges at this stage, Ryan expressed his hope that the project is met with quick support.
“We’ve been fortunate to have quite a bit of planning and discussion leading up to the point where we’re at,” Ryan said. “If there was new information that was provided, then I could foresee there being potential challenges with the project, but hopefully that won’t be the case and we’ll move forward with approval from the trustees.”
Seamus Frey contributed to this report.