Teams cope with loss of playing fields at GHS due to contamination

Source:, July 30, 2011
By: Neil Vigdor

Rich Albonizio is used to calling audibles.

But the head football coach at Greenwich High School might be hard-pressed to find something in the playbook for the latest challenge facing his Cardinals team.

Three weeks before the start of practice, the discovery of soil contamination at a nearby construction site on campus have knocked all seven of the school’s athletic fields out of commission.

No timetable has been set for when they could reopen, leaving both the school’s athletic teams and outside recreation groups that rely on the fields in a town known for its limited playing space in a lurch.

“We have to improvise,” said Albonizio, who is entering his 15th season at GHS. “Hopefully, it won’t affect us that much.”

The school district announced the closure on Friday after soil samples taken from a grass berm between the parking lot of the Hillside Road campus and two fields revealed the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at higher than acceptable levels.

Elevated readings of PCBs, lead, arsenic, barium and petroleum hydrocarbon were also discovered earlier in the week within the construction site, where the first phase of a $29 million project to build a new auditorium and music instruction space is under way.

PCBs are synthetic chemical mixtures that were used in industrial insulation, hydraulic equipment and hundreds of other applications before being banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Long-term exposure to PCBs has been linked to damage to the liver and immune system, as well as cancer.

“The big concern is you do want to react with an abundance of caution because it is a school site. It is kids,” said Steven Anderson, chairman of the Board of Education.

Additional testing of the soil will be conducted on Monday, coinciding with a closed-door meeting of the school district’s crisis management team at the Havemeyer Building.

Among those expected to sit in on the proceedings is First Selectman Peter Tesei, the town’s chief elected official.

“You have to be cautious,” Tesei said. “You can’t be cavalier when you’re dealing with health-related issues.”

Tesei said it’s critical for the town to do its homework.

“Certainly, we want to base any decisions on sound data,” Tesei said. “Once that’s received, we can act accordingly.”

Five of the seven fields are covered in artificial turf made from ground-up tires, which some environmentalists fear could leach toxins into the ground and emit harmful gases in the heat.

The town charges an hourly rental fee of $25 for artificial-turf fields and a $25 flat fee for grass fields.

Two sporting events have already been displaced because of the elevated contamination levels, according to park officials, who said that the situation could have been worse.

“Interestingly enough, this is probably the slowest time of the year that we have, scheduling-wise,” said Joseph Siciliano, the town’s parks director.

The town offered to move a pickup soccer match, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, from GHS to Central Middle School.

Cardinal Baseball Camp, a clinic run by GHS varsity baseball coach Mike Mora for 7- to 13-year-olds in its fourth and final week, is being moved to Binney Park in Old Greenwich.

“It’s under the control of the town,” said Mora, who has 70 students enrolled in his clinic.

Other than having to move the equipment across town, Mora wasn’t sweating the change.

“I think it’s a fine location,” he said of Binney Park. “There’s plenty of field space.”

Despite the town posting signs that the fields are closed until further notice, some people didn’t heed the warning.

“There was guy working out for soccer,” said Albonizio, who visited GHS on Saturday morning. “There were a couple of other kids running around.”

While Cardinal Stadium, the home field of the football team, is farther away from where the soil samples were taken, the locker room is near the construction site.

“Hopefully, this disaster will make them realize that we need locker-room facilities up at the main field,” Albonizio said.

The football team is scheduled to hold its first practice Aug. 22, with school opening Aug. 29.

Albonizio wondered where people are going to park.

“That seems like it’s going to be a major problem, teacher parking, depending on how long it takes them to get rid of this toxic waste, whatever they found there,” Albonizio said.

Two-thirds of the campus parking lot is currently off limits because of the auditorium project, according to Anderson, who estimated that the school has 835 spots for 2,800 students and faculty.

“We’re well aware that there’s a very short time frame that things have to happen over,” Anderson said.

Asked whether the start of the school year could be disrupted, Anderson said it’s way too early to tell.

“Safety overrules convenience,” Anderson said. “So if it means that fields need to be closed a little longer and parking needs to be reconfigured until we get everything figured out, that’s the path you have to go down.”

Albonizio was optimistic that the football program would be able to cope with the situation.

“Keep your fingers crossed,” he said.

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