Tire-waste recommendations move forward, despite Park Board concern

Some parents are concerned a recycled tire product widely used on district playgrounds is exposing children to toxins. Credit: Dylan Thomas

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is pushing back on a resolution that would prohibit the use of city funds to install or replace any facilities or amenities that use waste tires, including the playgrounds where shredded-tire mulch is used as a fall-cushioning ground cover.

Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller and President Anita Tabb wrote in a letter to City Council Member Cam Gordon that any city ban prior to the completion of two major studies is “premature.” The Environmental Protection Agency and state of California are currently looking into safety of fields and playgrounds that use waste tires.

Miller and Tabb also wrote that a ban might limit the Park Board’s ability to build the kinds of facilities that the public has asked for through “years of community engagement.” In an interview, Park Board Director of Strategic Planning Adam Arvidson said the resolution could lead to increased costs for the construction of the Currie Park field in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.

Waste tires are commonly used as ground cover on playgrounds and as infill in synthetic turf fields. Minneapolis Public Schools has 47 playgrounds and one athletic field that use the material, and the Park board has no playgrounds and eight athletic fields that use it.

Parents in Minneapolis have been pushing the school district to remove and replace waste tires from district playgrounds for the past several years, out of concerns of the potential health effects of chemicals in rubber mulch. That concern led the Minneapolis Health, Environment & Community Engagement Committee to create an independent subcommittee to study the issue this past year.

The subcommittee found tire rubber contains a variety of chemicals that are known to be toxic, but it said the health risk due to exposure to these chemicals has not yet been determined. It cited competing concerns, including increasing playtime throughout Minnesota seasons, safety and injury management, costs of installation and maintenance and field/playground durability.

It recommended a moratorium on city-financed projects using crumb rubber and tire mulch through 2019, outside of the 20-year Neighborhood Park Plan. NPP20 will provide $11 million annually to Minneapolis parks through 2036.

Gordon, who chairs the Health, Environment & Community Engagement Committee, said he felt that recommendation didn’t go far enough. He said he comes at this issue from more of a “precautionary principle” and feels he doesn’t need to wait for the other studies.

“It’s not built for people to play on,” he said of tire mulch. “It’s built for cars to drive on, so we should find something better.”

Miller and Tabb wrote that the resolution will limit the Park Board’s ability to implement projects on budget and may reduce the total amount of amenities it is able to build. The Park Board would prefer any action to be more in line with the waste-tire subcommittee’s recommendations, they wrote.

Arvidson said it’s “probably unclear” what real restrictions the city can put on the NPP20 money. He said the Park Board does have concerns that it wouldn’t be able to use waste-tire products under the resolution.

It’s unknown how many waste-tire projects will be a part of the NPP20, because the Park Board hasn’t finished master planning for neighborhood parks, Arvidson said. He said the field at Currie Park could be potentially most impacted by this discussion, because of plans to expand the field in 2019.

The Park Board is still continuing to look at different products, Arvidson said, but “to us it feels premature to tie our hands.”

In a letter to the committee, parent Nancy Brown wrote that Play It Safe Minneapolis, a group founded with the goal of removing waste tires from the Minneapolis school district’s playgrounds, “strongly endorses” Gordon’s resolution. Brown noted the health concerns related to toxins in waste tires and said those materials create heat islands in the warmer months and migrate into waterways.

Play It Safe had previously called for the subcommittee recommendations to include NPP20 in the moratorium.

Health, Environment & Community Engagement Committee members on Feb. 27 voted unanimously to send the resolution to the full City Council. All appeared in consensus that they don’t want to see waste-tire products used in Minneapolis playgrounds.

Council Member Jacob Frey said he’s “150 percent” in favor of eliminating waste-tire products moving forward but added that his concerns are monetary. He said he understands it would cost $3.3 million to change these playgrounds and said he’s concerned about the $28-million budget gap Minneapolis Public Schools faces in the upcoming year.

The school district estimated it would cost more than $1.1 million to convert the 47 rubber-mulch play areas to engineered wood fiber, the only other surface covering that would provide the necessary fall protection. The cost would likely increase, however, because of needed border changes and improved drainage, according to the district.

School Board members said last month that they would like to see recycled-tire products removed from playgrounds but noted the district has limited resources.

Council Member Lisa Bender said she feels strongly that it’s important to err on the side of caution, especially when carcinogens are involved.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden supported the resolution but abstained on the vote that directed the finance department to work with the Park Board and school district to identify the cost of waste-tire removal. She said she thinks budget items like this usually need to be part of the budget process, adding that it’s a big decision on whether they want to devote city resources to assisting other jurisdictions.

Council Member Andrew Johnson said the motion doesn’t commit the City Council to any dollar amount and is consistent with past practices.

“It’s really easy for us to tell others what to do,” he said, “but this is really committing city money to where our mouths are.”