In 2010, the Chaffey Joint Union High School District joined a wave of cities and school districts around the country when it spent $1.8 million to install synthetic turf fields at four of its high schools.
The benefits over natural turf were a big selling point: more durable, less maintenance and, perhaps most appealing in drought-prone California, no watering required.
The school district contracted with a multinational company, Montreal-based FieldTurf USA, that promised the fields would last a decade or more. An eight-year warranty was offered in case anything went wrong.
"About four years after our fields were installed, all four were failing, including fibers breaking, splitting and thinning," said Rick Wiersma, Chaffey's assistant superintendent of business.
Across Southern California and the rest of the country, hundreds of FieldTurf customers — most of them taxpayer-supported cities and school districts — have been experiencing the same problems for years. FieldTurf has acknowledged it used defective fibers in its synthetic turf and has filed a lawsuit against its supplier.
The fallout, involving untold millions of dollars, has been messy.
Each customer with a high school football field, soccer field or other synthetic turf surface has been forced to decide whether to accept a standard replacement from FieldTurf for free, pay extra for an upgraded surface or sue the company. Dozens of fields have been torn up and replaced throughout Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties as the negotiations with FieldTurf play out.
The Santa Ana Unified School District was among the customers that accepted FieldTurf's offer to provide an upgraded field at Century High School. The school board voted Feb. 28 to spend half a million dollars to replace the original field, which was installed in February 2011 and remained under warranty until 2019.
In the Chaffey school district, officials didn't like their options to replace high schools fields in Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario and Montclair.
"When the district requested that FieldTurf replace the fields, the company said it would do so — free of charge — only if it used the same fibers from the same company it had used three years earlier; an upgrade would cost $175,000 per field," Wiersma said.
"Faced with these unacceptable alternatives from a company it no longer trusted, the district opted to replace the fields with turf sold by a different company and sue FieldTurf for damages," he said.
The district is seeking class-action status for its lawsuit, but it has not yet been certified, said Peter Lindborg, the lawyer representing Chaffey. "There are about a dozen pending in federal court right now," he said.
A 2016 investigative report in New Jersey claims FieldTurf already was aware its Duraspine materials were defective in certain environments and colors when it was selling them across the country.
From 2005 to 2012, the company sold 1,428 Duraspine fields costing $300,000 to $500,000 each. Eighty-one were sold to school districts, cities and towns in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, according to records from the National Intergovernmental Purchasing Alliance, a national contracting cooperative.
FieldTurf USA replaced one-fifth of outdoor Duraspine fields under warranty. Other customers paid FieldTurf to replace the Duraspine fields with a competitor's product.
'Greatest thing since sliced raisin bread'
Lindborg said the Duraspine fibers in FieldTurf surfaces were "supposed to be, essentially, the greatest thing since sliced raisin bread in terms of artificial turf. And when FieldTurf started to market it, it probably believed that."
Think of synthetic turf as hair transplants for a field, with fibers pushed or punched through backing. A "fill" of sand and crumb rubber pellets from recycled tires is thrown on top. The fill settles in among the fibers and works like an artificial soil, cushioning impacts against the artificial turf.
"Shortly after they started installing them," Lindborg said, "FieldTurf started getting complaints that they were breaking down prematurely," sometimes as soon as within a single year, but more typically within three or four.
"When the fiber starts to break down, I've heard it called cat hair, because it gets that thin. ... It gets thin, it lays down flat. I've heard one client describe it as a putting green."
Thus, the fill — designed to protect athletes from injuries — is no longer held onto by the fibers.
"You'd get a dog pile in the middle of the field and these kids would get up, and on a real field, you'd have them covered in grass clippings," Lindborg said. "But these fibers don't grow back, obviously."
FieldTurf sued a Dutch company, TenCate Thiolon, in March 2011. TenCate Thiolon was FieldTurf's exclusive provider for the Duraspine turf until 2010. But in 2007, it changed its formula and manufacturing process, causing the fibers to break under tension.
FieldTurf alleged a "bait-and-switch scheme," according to the company's initial complaint. It accused TenCate Thiolon of changing to cheaper materials and manufacturing, and not using stabilizers to prevent damage from the sun's ultraviolet rays. That resistance to ultraviolet radiation had been the marketing hook for Duraspine.
"These changes resulted in batches of fiber that degraded prematurely and failed to meet contract specifications or live up to the terms of (TenCate Thiolon's) warranty," FieldTurf's complaint reads in part.
According to Lindborg, FieldTurf knew when it sold the fields to the Chaffey district and many others that the Duraspine materials were experiencing problems. FieldTurf, which sold Duraspine until 2012, now makes its own fibers.
"In the 2009-10 time frame, FieldTurf had enough information to know these fields were failing early on a regular basis," he said. The investigation by New Jersey's Star-Ledger claimed FieldTurf knew as early as 2006.
"When they were selling these fields to the Chaffey district and the other fields around the country, they either knew or, if they didn't know, were playing ostrich about the fact that the fields were going to fail."
Duraspine fields across Southern California
According to FieldTurf USA's president and CEO, the problem is mostly a cosmetic one, with fields in sunny areas, especially the South and Southwest, discoloring over time.
"There is not and has never been any issue with the safety of these fields for playing on," Eric Daliere wrote in an open letter on the company's website, responding to the Star-Ledger story. "This is not a new issue. In the fall of 2009, we became aware that FieldTurf was starting to receive more warranty claims related to field and fiber performance than in the past. We came to understand that the Duraspine fiber was prone to premature fiber breakdown in certain high UV conditions and in certain fiber colors."
In Redondo Beach, FieldTurf installed Duraspine fields in 2009 at Washington Elementary, Parras Middle and Redondo Union High. The artificial turf fibers thinned out enough that Janet Redella, Redondo Unified's assistant superintendent of administrative services, was able to see the rubber pellet fill showing through.
"I did look at the field and see the beads and thought that was a little unusual," she said. "I didn't remember it always being like that, being able to see the fill."
After FieldTurf won its suit against TenCate Thiolon, the Canadian company got back in touch with Redondo Unified. Representatives told the district it could replace the fields with new ones under warranty or upgrade them. The district decided to go with upgrades, getting even better fields, with new eight-year warranties, from FieldTurf for $150,000 each.
"And then we did two more," Redella said. The district spent about $550,000 on a field at Alta Vista Elementary and $3 million for one at Adams Middle School, she said.
It was a similar story in Redlands Unified, where Citrus Valley High School had a Duraspine field installed in 2010. The company has already replaced it.
"Field Turf USA reached out to us, and gave us a full replacement last summer, in 2017," said district spokeswoman MaryRone Shell.
The Riverside Community College District purchased Duraspine fields for its Norco campus. It has been in contact with lawyers about a class-action suit, but isn't a named plaintiff, according to Patrick Pyle, the district's general counsel.
Fontana Unified purchased a Duraspine field for Jurupa Hills High in 2010. District officials noticed a little more wear and tear than expected, said Ryan DiGiulio, associate superintendent of business services, but nothing shocking.
"All of those fields degrade over time, so we were looking to replace it anyway," DiGiulio said.
Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest public school system, has only one FieldTurf field, although it's not a Duraspine product, according to district spokeswoman Elvia Perez Cano. That Prestige XM 60 field at Crenshaw High was probably installed by a contractor because FieldTurf is not an approved manufacturer for the district. That said, Los Angeles has had its own, problems with artificial turf fields it purchased from another manufacturer.
Not every Duraspine field installed by FieldTurf has failed. Four of them installed at Pomona's Veterans Park Soccer Complex are aging as expected, city spokesman Mark Gluba said.
"We didn't experience any premature failing of the product," he said. "It's still there."
Likewise, Pasadena didn't have any problems with its fields at Robinson Park and Villa Parke Community Center.
"It's being replaced free of charge" by FieldTurf USA anyway, said city spokeswoman Lisa Derderian. "We are aware of, but not involved in, the class-action lawsuit."
The company's legal troubles may not be over. One Los Angeles County school district says the California Attorney General's Office could be pursuing a case against FieldTurf USA. When, or if, that's still happening is unclear.
"To protect its integrity, we can’t comment on, even to confirm or deny, a potential or ongoing investigation," the Attorney General's Office wrote in an email.
Staff Writer Nikie Johnson contributed to this report.