Electron Hydro LLC and its CEO have been fined USD 1 million for polluting the Puyallup River in 2020 with crumb rubber that was still in the synthetic turf carpet it used as a liner during a construction project.
The fine was the result of a plea deal.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson initially brought three dozen misdemeanour charges against Electron and Chief Operating Officer Thom Fischer, saying they discharged pollutants and intentionally violated a permit.
The company had placed a third-generation synthetic turf carpet in a temporary bypass channel during the summer of 2020. The carpet had been reclaimed from a sports field renovation and hadn’t been (properly) cleared of the mineral and polymeric infill that was once used to maintain the fibres in an upright position. When the plastic liner that was placed on top of the old synthetic turf infill tore, large amounts of synthetic turf and infill washed downstream.
SBR particles lined the river shores for kilometres and polluted the river, which used to be the habitat of the coho salmon.
Electron Hydro and its CEO, Thom Fischer, claimed innocence, stating that the turf (and infill) was never meant to be touched by the water, as the company had covered the turf with a plastic liner.
However, the Attorney General’s Office noted that the company’s own biologist, Mallory Voyk, had warned Fischer days before the spill that the use of field turf was unacceptable because the rubber could make its way into the river.
The decision by the CEO to ignore the warning the company’s own biologist had issued him directly has now made him personally liable as well.
“Electron Hydro and Thom Fischer’s reckless conduct damaged this waterway and put species like salmon at risk,” Ferguson said. “My office will hold accountable any companies that pollute our rivers, put aquatic life at risk and endanger the health of communities.”
Ban in Europe imminent
Microplastic pollution from, amongst others, polymeric infill from third-generation synthetic turf, is the reason why European authorities are pushing hard to ban the sale of crumb rubber and its polymeric alternatives.
The European Commission is expected to vote on a proposal to ban the sale of polymeric infill from 2029 onwards. According to the authorities, the approximately 35,000 full-size third-generation synthetic turf fields with polymeric infill are the single biggest polluters in Europe.
Much of the pollution is blamed on the absence of measures or activities to prevent the infill from leaving the field perimeter. However, the irresponsible or incorrect use of reclaimed synthetic turf surfaces is also blamed for the pollution, as neither transport companies nor the new owners feel inclined to take responsibility for the negative side-effects of the cheaply bought turf.
Both the European industry as well as authorities are now clamping down on this as well, by introducing strict measures and guidelines to remove and recycle old turf.
A drop in the ocean
The Puyallup Tribe of Indians, which has treaty rights to fish in the Puyallup River, have blasted the plea deal. According to them, “It doesn’t come close to accountability.”
“This is a mere operating expense for the company,” the Tribal Council said in a written statement. “The health of our people and the residents of Washington is worth a lot more than that.”