Sides are drawn on Old Lyme park care

Old Lyme - It's the ultimate battle of each side believing they're advocating for what's best for the children.

In order for the children of Lyme and Old Lyme to thrive, one side believes, they need well-maintained athletic fields free of bald spots, bumps and grubs. And in order to provide that, the towns must use some pesticides - the proven, effective and affordable way to maintain ball fields that see heavy foot traffic.

But another group of residents says that chemicals are harmful to children and that the towns should switch to organic care of Town Woods Park, just as schools are now mandated to do by state law. Further, the park sits on an aquifer, and the chemicals are seeping into the town's drinking supply, they say.

Both sides are convinced they are right. Both sides believe they have science on their side.

The debate is ultimately a variation of larger environmental concerns that the toxins and pollutants we encounter in the air, on the ground, in the water and in our food are slowly killing us.

In Connecticut, a law prohibits the use of conventional pesticides on the grounds of schools that serve students in eighth grade and lower. But this year, due to concern that the ban on pesticides is damaging school fields, the legislature is considering amending the law to allow for the use of some pesticides, where needed.

Hundreds testified both in favor and against the amendment during a public hearing in February.

At the University of Connecticut's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture is slowly attempting to chip away popular science from real science.

"The challenge is, there's a lot of (products) out there right now that are quote-unquote organic that are not research-based," said Jason Henderson, an assistant professor of turfgrass science. "So we've started in our program ... to systematically research these organic management practices to determine ... the legitimacy of doing these particular organic treatments."

The department provides recommendations to the turfgrass industry on how best to maintain athletic fields, said John Inguagiato, assistant professor of turfgrass pathology. Thus, Henderson's focus is not on taking sides in the organic vs. synthetic debate, but rather on filling in the gaps in studies in order to provide carefully researched recommendations.

Though the grass on ball fields may look just like ordinary grass, turfgrass maintenance poses unique challenges not seen in home lawns or even on golf courses. Ball fields see heavy wear-and-tear from cleats and lacrosse sticks and poorly aimed kicks, and healthy turfgrass relies on not just proper seeding, watering and pest control but also on the right type of grass, the right type of soil and strong roots able to withstand heavy traffic, Henderson said.

Conventional vs. organic

A 2008 study that Henderson and Nathaniel A. Miller published in the March/April issue of the journal Crop Science, titled "Organic Management Practices on Athletic Fields," found that conventional means of managing athletic fields proved more successful than organic methods.

The conventional use of chemicals resulted in better quality turfgrass and fewer weeds, among other things, though Henderson said more and longer-term research is needed to determine that definitively. And while one of the arguments for organic care is that organic products create healthier fields because they eliminate dependence on chemicals, Henderson said he didn't see that in his research.

"We find that the organic practices, in the short term, are oftentimes not as effective," Inguagiato said. "In some cases, they may be equivalent, and that's encouraging. But I think that what's really needed is a long-term evaluation where we can do comparisons between conventional approaches, organic approaches and probably to have some sort of hybrid of those approaches."

Henderson cautioned that while people may assume that use of organic products is safer, that may not necessarily be the case. Over-applying compost, for instance, could result in an excess of nitrogen and phosphorous leaching into the ground and polluting the groundwater instead of getting absorbed by the plants.

"You still need to be extremely careful with how much you're putting out, when you're putting out," he said, "not unlike conventional methods."

But Bill Duesing, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), said pesticides are harmful to children's health and should not be used in the widespread manner that they currently are.

"Pesticides are designed to kill," Duesing said, adding later, "Part of it is just the precautionary system. We know these things are damaging to pests. We know that at some levels, they can do things that aren't good to people. And especially the young people are the most vulnerable, because their systems are changing very rapidly. They're growing very rapidly. So it just makes sense to have ... an excess of caution to our young people."

An article on the NOFA Organic Land Care Program website, written by Kimberly A. Stoner, of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the Organic Land Care Committee, points to studies that link pesticides exposure on adults to birth defects, cancer and more.

Municipal disagreements

The battle in Old Lyme over the use of pesticides at Town Woods Park grew so fierce over the years that a Pesticide Awareness Committee, charged with making recommendations on the use of pesticides in town, dissolved without reaching consensus. Meanwhile, the application of pesticides was abruptly halted at Town Woods.

On Feb. 21, Bob Dunn and Phil Neaton resigned as chairman and vice chairman of the Town Woods Operating Committee, convinced the selectmen did not plan to pay heed to what they believed was a thoughtful recommendation to reintroduce pesticides at Town Woods Park.

Neaton, who works as the superintendent of the Black Hall Golf Club and was chairman of the pesticide committee, said chemicals are safe when used responsibly by licensed professionals, as approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"What makes any of these a poison is the dosage," Neaton said. "We handle poisons, but we handle them properly."

Lauralyn Lewis, a member of the pesticide committee and Conservation Commission, said Neaton made the "unilateral" decision to pull the plug on pesticides, something none of the organic care advocates called for. Cutting chemicals cold turkey is guaranteed to ruin the fields, she and others have said.

Lewis said it's not just the use of chemicals on the ball fields that are harming children. The state routinely sprays pesticides in town, she said, which then move through the air or seep through the ground and pollute the public water supply.

But Dunn said Lewis' concerns about pesticides at Town Woods seeping into the water supply is unfounded; when the park was built in 2003, the Old Lyme Water Pollution Control Authority dug a well to test the water quality and ensure the ball fields were not polluting the groundwater.

To date, the WPCA has not found any water quality issues at Town Woods, Dunn said.

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said the town, which shares Town Woods Park with neighboring Lyme, will continue to maintain the park without the use of pesticides this year. In the meantime, the two towns have agreed to add extra money to the park maintenance budget - in Old Lyme's case, $30,000.

"(We) needed to allocate something to start somewhere," Reemsnyder said.

Reemsnyder is planning to work with Dr. Jerry Silbert, a physician and executive director of Guilford-based The Watershed Partnership, which promotes healthy environmental practices.

Silbert took it upon himself to get tests done on soil samples he took from Town Woods and is awaiting results, Reemsnyder said.

j.cho@theday.com

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