Beach Chalet soccer fields face pitched battle

If lawyers had the equivalent of a penalty shootout, it might look like what played out in a San Francisco courtroom Friday when two teams of attorneys argued over putting artificial turf on the Beach Chalet soccer fields in Golden Gate Park.

This civil trial comes at the back end of a two-year struggle over replacing grass with synthetic turf cushioned by ground up rubber tires. The conversion would also include 60-foot tall lights plus new concrete seating and parking.

Opponents of the plan — the petitioners — include the Sierra Club and a local citizen’s group called San Francisco Tomorrow.

They had three attorneys lined up against three attorneys for the respondents – which are The City and the City Fields Foundation, a non-profit organization slated to fund the new soccer fields at the west end of the park.

The $14 million plan — partially funded from a parks bond San Francisco voters passed in 2008 — has many supporters, mainly from a large swath of local soccer and youth groups, plus some of the most prominent politicians from the Bay Area.

The proposal is opposed by a variety of local neighborhood groups and associations, in addition to environmental groups like the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

The plan took years to develop, and was approved by several San Francisco boards and commissions, as well as the California Coastal Commission.

And the fight to stop it has been going on almost every step of the way.

This trial is the last chance opponents have to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

The lawsuit — brought under the California Environmental Quality Act — asserts that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project is inadequate because it failed to disclose the health risks of toxins found in the rubber tire crumb infill used in the artificial turf, including heavy metals such as lead and zinc, benzene, formaldehyde  and carbon black.

Critics say the EIR does not consider safe alternatives to toxic infill and fails to consider a “hybrid alternative” which would relocate artificial turf fields with “safe” infill to the West Sunset Playground.

The suit is asking the court to order The City to immediately stop the project, and vacate the approvals granted by The City until a better EIR is prepared and approved in compliance with all CEQA requirements.

Attorney for the petitioners, Vernon C. Grigg III, said during his opening statement:

“We all want our kids to have a safe, rich environment in which to play. … But playing on top of crushed-up, recycled old tires is not the solution. … This plan proposes to grind (the tires) up and spread them all over the soccer fields in a fine powder for kids to ingest, breath in, end up in their eyes, their mouths.”

Grigg argued that when the SF Board of Supervisors approved the plan, other “non-toxic” alternative turfs were not included in the EIR:

“Because they were told ‘either we do it this way, at the Beach Chalet, using the SBR crumb turf with the lights in this location … or else we don’t do the project at all.’”

City Attorney Jim Emery countered by arguing that the EIR fulfilled its function as an informational document because SBR does not pose a significant environmental health risk:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if these are not the most heavily scrutinized soccer fields in America and they haven’t even been built yet … Under CEQA, if there’s substantial evidence to support the conclusion that the material does not pose a significant environmental health risk, then CEQA does not require an analysis of alternatives.”

Petitioner attorney Richard Drury responded that The City’s position ignores evidence that the materials in the infill have the potential to cause cancer or asthma if enough is ingested, either by breathing it or getting it in the eyes or mouth:

“What the (City) is essentially arguing here is ‘well we looked at a bunch of studies. Some of them say said it was risky, some said that it wasn’t, and after looking at all those studies, we decided it’s ‘safe.’ They’re not only lowering the goal posts, they’re removing the goal posts entirely..’”

Scott Emblidge, an attorney for the City Fields Foundation, kicked the issue right back at Drury.

“The EIR reflects years of research, internationally, nationally and in California into SBR turf. It’s one of the most studied substances you can find out there and (the EIR) has reference after reference to studies that found no health effects.”

Judge Teri L. Jackson noted that there is also a question in this case of whether The City followed proper procedures required by CEQA in putting together the EIR.

An attorney for the Sierra Club, Michael Molland, addressed this issue.

Before the San Francisco Ethics Committee, said Molland, Recreation and Park Department officials admitted to “destroying” numerous emails related to the soccer fields because of the department’s document retention policy:

“Because we don’t have the whole record, as a matter of procedure, the EIR does not conform with law. … We have admitted testimony and we have documents that show not all Rec & Park emails that should have been produced in this case, have been.”

City attorney Emery responded:

“If there’s a argument by petitioners that the record is inadequate, they must tie it to a substantive claim and say that the absence of information in the record means that there isn’t substantial evidence or that there’s no showing of sufficient alternatives. … It has to be tied to one of their substantive arguments. Mr. Molland’s argument was not.”

After the attorneys presented their arguments, Judge Jackson said she will review them and will likely have more questions before she makes a decision. She scheduled another hearing for next Wednesday.