Sydneys Toxic Green Olympics
Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Sydneys Toxic Green Olympics', Current Affairs Bulletin, vol.70, no. 6, November 1993, pp.12-18
This is a final version submitted for publication.
To win the Olympic Games for Sydney, the Sydney Olympics 2000 Bid Limited (SOBL) had to overcome an awesome public relations hurdle. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was keen to have a green Olympics. It had announced that it would make environmental considerations a criterion for evaluating candidate cities and the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, said that the IOC's primary concern would be to ensure the environment is respected and this would be taken into account in the final vote. But Sydney's big problem was that the city's proposed site was to be amidst one of Australia's worst toxic waste dumps.
The solution was to concentrate on and market other "green" aspects of Sydney's bid and ensure that discussion of the contamination was kept out of the public arena. The SOBL enlisted some environmentalists and environmental consultants to produce environmental guidelines for the construction and operation of Olympic facilities. The guidelines advocated the use of recyclable and recycled building materials, the use of plantation timber as opposed to forest timber, and tickets printed on "recycled post consumer waste paper". The Olympic village was designed by a consortium of architects, including a firm commissioned by Greenpeace, Australia. The design provided for use of solar technology and solar designs, state of the art energy generation systems, cycle ways and waste water recycling systems.
These measures were heralded as a major environmental breakthrough in urban design. A media release from SOBL stated that "No other event at the beginning of the 21st Century will have a greater impact on protecting the environment than the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney." In another the NSW Minister responsible for the bid, Bruce Baird, said that Sydney's Olympics will be an environmental showpiece to the rest of the world which future host cities can follow in future Games. Ros Kelly, the Federal Minister for Environment, Sport and Territories, also put out a press release arguing that "a vote by the international community for Sydney will be a vote for the environment."
Contamination of the Site
Most of the Olympic facilities and the Olympic village will be located at Homebush Bay, a 760ha disused industrial site about 12 kilometres from the Sydney central business district. The area has been home to a number of unpleasant industries since early in the century. Part of the site once housed the State Abattoirs (1907 to 1988) and the State Brickworks (1911 to 1988) which included a quarry for clay and shale to make bricks. The Navy's armaments depot is currently on the site but is likely to be relocated. In the mid-1980s when it became evident that the brickworks and the abattoirs were nearing the end of their operating lives, the area was designated for redevelopment. It is surrounded by chemical industries, a fuel terminal, a large petroleum products storage area, an oil refinery and a prison. Unoccupied parts of the site have also been subject to years of waste dumping.
Extensive landfilling and land reclamation has been carried out on the site since the 1890s, most of it during the 1960s and 1970s when municipal councils stopped taking industrial waste at their garbage tips. Industrial waste dumping continued even into the early 1980s. As a result a bay and large areas of saltmarshes and wetlands have been filled in (see map). In total about one third of the Homebush site has been filled to a depth of between 0.5 and 4 metres. Materials used for landfill and reclamation ranged from demolition materials to industrial and household wastes. Since most of the filling happened without supervision no records were kept of the location or type of wastes that were buried on the site. In recent years heavy metals, asbestos contaminated wastes and chemical wastes including dioxins and pesticides, have been found on parts of the site.
In 1991 Coffey Partners International completed a study of soil contamination that involved taking samples at various depths on a 50 metre grid across much of the site. Samples were analysed for a range of compounds. Samples were also analysed for dioxin "in landfill areas, where historical research indicated it may have been present." The study was commissioned by the Property Services Group, a NSW government department with responsibility for developing Homebush Bay.
The testing by Coffey Partners revealed extensive contamination. The problem was worst at the old brickworks site, near the State Sports Centre and near Haslams Creek that runs through the site separating the proposed Olympic village from the existing and proposed sporting and recreational activities. As well as the landfill waste there was other hazardous waste in the area because there had been five railway stations in the area and the rail embankments were constructed of asbestos wastes and regularly sprayed with weedicides.
The areas along the edges of Haslams Creek (see map) were found by Coffey Partners to contain heavy metals, lead, hydrocarbons, asbestos, pesticides and putrescible wastes. The groundwater had elevated levels of chlorobenzenes, chloromethanes and chloroethylenes presumably leached out of the dumped material in the ground. The surface seep water contained elevated levels of chlorobenzene, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, ammonium, fluoride, barium, copper, zinc and other metals.
At the brickworks site, one of the pits had been used for disposal of industrial waste from the early 1970s before any specialised landfill facilities for industrial waste were available in Sydney. It has now been found by Coffey Partners to contain heavy metals, waste oil products, asbestos and organochlorine pesticides. The other pit operated as a quarry for the brickworks until 1988 and now consists of a gaping hole covering 16 hectares with a diameter of 400 metres and a depth of 40 metres (30 metres below sea level). (The pits were used as a location for the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome because of the derelict after-the-bomb atmosphere.)
The brickworks area covering about 30 hectares is planned to be an important feature of the Olympics 2000 development. At one stage it was proposed to excavate the filled pit and flood both pits to form two circular inland harbours. But the contamination of the site precluded this and in order to avoid having to excavate the wastes out of the filled pit, it is likely that the area above the filled pit will be landscaped and an entertainment centre built there (see map) where the gymnastics events could be held. It is also proposed that a major outdoor concert venue or amphitheatre and tennis centre (see map) be established over the other pit and that perhaps the cavity underneath could be used to store stormwater for irrigation purposes. According to the Property Services Group the final design for the brickpit area has not been finalised because the level of access to the small brickpit area has yet to be determined.
In the grounds around the State Sports Centre, next door to the proposed Olympic velodrome where it is intended to establish a golfing range, testing by Coffey Partners has revealed arsenic, lead, cadmium, asbestos, pesticides and low concentrations of dioxins and dibenzofurans up to 9.5 metres deep. Groundwater in the area was found to have elevated levels of chlorobenzenes, organochlorines and cyanide. Surface water in the creek running through the site is also contaminated with chlorinated hydrocarbons. A major concern in this area was that acidic leachate was threatening to corrode pipelines buried under the western portion of the site including oil and gas lines and high tension underground electricity lines.
The Olympic village will be on the southern end of the Newington Armaments Depot which stores and supplies ammunition to the Royal Australian Navy. Part of this site, closest to Haslams Creek, is unsuitable for housing because it is flood-prone and includes waste fill. The Armaments Depot is to be relocated. One option being considered is to shift it to Jervis Bay (on the South Coast of NSW), but this proposal is extremely controversial since Jervis Bay is a valued ecological area.
Assessing Risks Posed at the Site
The sampling data collected by Coffey Partners were reviewed and interpreted in 1990/91 by consultants Dames and Moore for the Property Services Group in a multi-volume report on site remediation for the area. Dames and Moore found that the most contaminated parts of the site posed potential health and safety problems to workers and site visitors during redevelopment, particularly from near surface asbestos contamination near the main brick pit and chemical contamination and ongoing generation and seepage to the surface of landfill gas. They also stated that there could be public health risks to users of these areas arising from possible seepage of contaminants and gases to the surface after redevelopment was complete.
John Pollack, a biochemist and honorary associate of the University of Sydney who advises the Total Environment Centre, says chemicals can enter the body via ingestion, absorption through the skin and inhalation of gases, vapours, dusts or aersols and be distributed through the body via the bloodstream. However he points out that "the deleterious effects of many hazardous chemicals remain ill-defined or are a cause for dispute". This is especially the case for the mixtures of chemicals that might occur at a hazardous waste site. He points out that some hazardous wastes, such as organochlorines and hydrocarbons generate free radicals which migrate through the soil and can cause membrane and DNA damage in humans. "As a result people may get a range of problems including ill-effects that are not well defined."
Environmental effects are also difficult to predict. Stuart Nicholson and Nirander Safaya, writing in a recent issue of Environment, Science and Technology say that there are no comprehensive data bases on hazardous waste site ecology to draw on "other than general principles of ecotoxicology and some documented effects of contaminants on biota."
It was the job of environmental consultants Inner City Fund (ICF) P/L to assess the health and environmental risks that were posed by the Homebush Bay site for the Property Services Group, before and after remediation. ICF are an Australian branch of a US firm set up in the 1960s to clean up big East Coast American cities. One of their reports, completed in February this year, concluded: "While it is probable that risks from dioxins in surface soil and subsurface soil are in fact below acceptable thresholds, there are insufficient data of good quality to confirm this."
ICF had similar problems when it considered specific parts of the Homebush Bay site. It was unable to come up with definitive conclusions because of numerous uncertainties that have yet to be resolved and because it was not responsible for remediation work and had to assume it would be done properly. For example, In its report on the State Sports Centre, ICF had to qualify its conclusion that after remediation there would be little chance of adverse ecological impacts with the provision that no leachate from the contaminated part of the site entered the creek and that the creek didn't intercept any contaminated soil. Similarly, in its report on the contamination of Haslam's Creek South, ICF concluded that risks to people using the site from breathing in contaminants were probably within acceptable limits but that "insufficient data was available for quantitative assessment". ICF is conducting ongoing investigations for the Property Services Group to try and fill in these gaps.
Similarly ICF will be collecting more information to be able to make a fuller assessment of the risks in the brickworks area. For example, it was unable to include potential risks from volatile chemicals in the soils at the site because of a lack of data. It said "it is likely that VOCs [volatile organic chemicals] are present at the site and could pose a potential health risk due to direct contact with soil and due to inhalation of compounds which have volatilised into air."
Pollack says that these sorts of uncertainties need to be resolved before any further development goes ahead. "It would be very irresponsible to ignore such statements" he says. Pollack's main involvement with the Homebush area has been with the contamination of the Bay itself, the water and the sediments. He is on an Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) committee charged with cleaning up the problem but has been frustrated in his attempts over the past eight years to have the problem taken seriously.
A 1991 study of aquatic sediments and fauna in Homebush Bay commissioned by the State Pollution Control Commission  and carried out by scientists Norman Rubinstein and John Wicklun, both from the US EPA, found that there were "high concentrations of a number of organochlorine compounds, especially 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD)" mainly as a result of the past activities of the Union Carbide facilities across the Bay from the Olympic site. The scientists claimed that they were "not aware of any sites in the US with sediment concentrations of TCDD this high".
Fishing in Homebush Bay is currently banned because of contamination of the fish. Pollack points out that any dredging as part of the redevelopment of the Homebush Bay site could meet the same problem that previous dredging has. Material taken out of the Bay previously was so contaminated that the land it was taken to had to be subsequently classified as a contaminated site, he claims.
Remediation of the Site
The risks to human and environmental health posed by a hazardous waste site can be lessened by reducing the contamination. This would involve treating or removing contaminated soil. Alternatively risks can be lessened by preventing exposure of humans, animals and plants to the contamination. The first alternative≥treatment≥is the more responsible way of dealing with contaminated sites because it is more permanent, but it is also more expensive. The Property Services Group, however, has chosen the latter approach. In the US under Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) provisions, permanent treatment of contaminated soils is preferred to non-treatment containment systems  such as those being proposed by the Property Services Group.
Like the US authorities the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published guidelines for contaminated sites in January 1992 which stated a preferred order of options for site clean-up and management. ANZECC and NHMRC preferred on-site treatment of the soil or off-site treatment of the excavated soil. "Should it not be possible for either of these options to be implemented, then other options that should be considered" include removal of the soil to an approved site, isolation of the soil by covering it with a properly designed barrier or choosing a less sensitive land use. The guidelines point out that "polluted soil should be regarded as potentially hazardous waste and as such should be subjected to the same controls over its use, storage, transport and ultimate disposal as industrial waste."
The remediation strategy for the Homebush site does not involve treatment of the toxic contamination as is generally preferred but rather removing contaminated soil from the less contaminated parts of the site and transporting them to the worst contaminated areas so that there is "more space for suitable development". For example the contaminated soil near the Sports Centre, around the pipes in the Western part of the site and from beneath the softball area will be concentrated in the northern part of the site bounded by a creek, and the Sports Centre Access Roads (see map).
The creek, known as Boundary creek, runs from a pond near the Sports Centre to a lake in nearby Bicentennial Park. It has been diverted further south, away from the most contaminated areas (see map). The decision to divert the creek was made because of the difficulty of catching the leachate going into it in its original position. It was thought that digging trenches to put the drains into that area could have endangered the lives of the workers. Leachate drains have been installed along the edge of the diverted creek and along the eastern side of the site to catch contaminated groundwater. According to the Property Services Group, the contaminated area will also be "capped with a cover layer of clean fill and soil designed to restrict rainfall infiltration, and landscaped." This remediation work is due for completion at the end of this year.
Heavily contaminated waste from the southern end of the Olympics precinct beneath and adjacent to the aquatic centre, has been excavated and removed to a nearby secure landfill where it is proposed to build hardstand carpark areas some time in the future. This landfill will be fully lined and covered with topsoil. "Leachate will be monitored, collected and treated as necessary."
Contaminated materials from other areas are being brought to a landfill on the southern side of Haslams Creek which will then be capped and landscaped and leachate drains installed. In this area is a pile of waste called Bradshaw's mountain which is expected to grow another 10m tall before it is capped. Recently a busload of visitors were told by a site guide that they could not get off the bus to inspect Bradshaw's mountain because anyone going within 10 metres of it would need to be properly suited with respirators.
Leachates have been going into the creek for many years now and the Property Services Group considers it is a matter of priority that they be intercepted. Leachate intercepted by the proposed drains here and elsewhere on site will be tested and if contaminated pumped to an Aqueous Waste Treatment Plant. (Leachate that is not found to be contaminated may be used to irrigate grassed areas of the site.) The Aqueous Waste Treatment Plant is conveniently situated between the Olympic Village and the other Olympic facilities (see map) and already treats toxic sludges and other industrial liquid waste unfit for disposal to sewer from around the Sydney area.
In their guidelines ANZECC and NHMRC say that "In general, the response to dealing with contaminated soil in Australia has been to dig it up and take it to a secure landfill." In the case of the Homebush Bay site this is thought to be too expensive, and would merely move the problem somewhere else.
Errol Samuels, who is the person in the NSW Environmental Protection Authority responsible for contaminated sites, says that the range of technologies being used in the US to clean up sites is just not available in Australia. "For example, in the US you might dig up the contaminated soil and incinerate it, but there is no suitable incinerator here in Australia. Bioremediation is very slow and only reduces concentrations of hazardous waste to certain levels. Land fill facilities are limited and some landfill operators won't take these sort of wastes."
John Pym, from the Waste Recycling and Processing Service (WRAPS), argues that all treatment of waste involves degradation and that containment is just a very slow means of degradation. The only draw back with containment, he says, is the liability that might arise from a sudden breach of the containment and the time taken for eventual degradation. In the case of Homebush Bay he argues that most of the waste has been contained for 15 years already and so degradation is already underway. Economics and the need to use the site quickly meant that containment was the best strategy.
According to Jim Libby, from the EPA, it is costing about $30 million to rehabilitate Haslams Creek South, the State Sports Centre and the SRA embankment in the Olympic precinct. This money is coming from the State government. The Property Services Group is also funding a position in the EPA to enable their close involvement with the site. Although $30 million sounds like a lot of money it is no where near the sort of money being spent in the US on Superfund sites where efforts are made to treat the waste rather than just contain it. A Property Services Group officer has commented that theirs was a more practical solution that got things done while the US authorities were "still mucking about."
The need for a quick clean up has obviously affected remediation decisions. For example removal of 80,000 tonnes of asbestos waste from the Olympic precinct posed a problem that was overcome by using unorthodox methods. With the agreement of union officials the waste, instead of being sealed and bagged, was wetted down and moved in bulk.
Although no additional site allowances have been given to the workers dealing with waste material on the site, monitoring has been installed to protect workers' health. There is a monitoring control system that operates before and after as well as during working hours to protect the public and the workers. If levels of waste in the air exceed set levels then the site is supposed to be closed down. For example, at the State Sports Centre monitoring is carried out for chromium 6 and benzene (both carcinogens). In the vicinity of the Aquatic Centre monitoring is done for arsenic and asbestos fibres. Dust is collected and analysed.
The ANZECC/NHMRC guidelines are quite explicit about the need for community involvement. "There is a demonstrated requirement for community consultation and participation during the investigation and clean-up of sites". They say this is because the public has a "right to know". Yet the remediation work at Homebush Bay has been going on without any environmental impact statement being prepared and publicly displayed. The reports produced for the PSG, such as the Dames and Moore report and the ICF reports, have not been published although some are available through Freedom of Information applications.
The government authorities claim there has been extensive community consultation. Groups consulted range from Greenpeace through to a local group called Greenspace which apparently consisted of three married couples who organised exhibitions and translaters for the local community. The PSG has kept some key people informed, including a specially selected environmental committee, and has maintained contact with others through newsletters and brochures.
However many local residents do not feel there has been adequate public consultation and participation. A survey of local residents undertaken last year by the local group, Greens In Lowe, found that of the 100 residents surveyed, 71% said they were not getting enough information about what is to be done in the Homebush Bay area for them to be able to form an opinion on it and 75% said that they had not received enough information about the clean-up of pollution in the area to satisfy them that the area was safe for people to live and work in.
The usual process in NSW for involving the public in such decisions is through the public and advertised display of an environmental impact statement (EIS), which the public is able to make submissions on. Alan Gilpin, former NSW Commissioner of Inquiry says of EISs in general that they are supposed to alert the decision-maker, members of the public, and the government to the consequences of a project and explore alternatives to the project.
The mandatory requirement for such an EIS to be prepared for earthworks at the brickpits site was removed through an amendment to the Regional Environmental Plan (REP) in 1991. A new Regional Environmental Plan recently prepared by the NSW Department of Planning removes mandatory requirements for an EIS to be prepared for earthworks on other parts of the site that had been subject to landfilling. It gives the NSW Minister for Planning full authority to give consent for development of the area earmarked for Olympic facilities and allows development of the contaminated land within the area, including landfilling, removal and reworking of filled material to occur without the normal consultation process.
The new Regional Environmental Plan has angered some environmentalists. According to Jeff Angel, co-director of the Total Environment Centre, the plan allows the Government to be "a law unto itself. It is incredible that despite the concerns previously expressed by environmentalists that Sydney's Green Olympic Bid was all hot air, the Government still felt it necessary to issue the REP in this form."
Angel, argues that the Sydney Olympic bid's green credentials were exaggerated by ignoring associated environmental problems. He says "The state of Sydney's environment has been misrepresented to a serious degree. For example the Premier in his Introduction to the Bid's Fact Sheets describes the Games as occurring in a pollution free environment. The bid document asserts Sydney's waste system can cope, when in fact we have a waste crisis." Environmentalists are also concerned about the diversion of revenue into extravagant sports facilities and the loss of valued local ecosystems.
Despite misgivings by some environmentalists about the environmental credentials of the Games, the issue of toxic contamination of the site was not openly discussed prior to the Olympic decision because of the inaccessibility of relevant information. Public discussion of the hazardous waste issue has also been somewhat muted by the close involvement with the Olympic bid of a key environmental group, Greenpeace Australia. After campaigning about the dangers of hazardous landfill dumps for many years, Greenpeace's involvement is very reassuring to a public that might otherwise be concerned about the history of this site.
In fact, Karla Bell, Cities and Coasts Campaigner for Greenpeace Australia, made a representation about the environmental merits of the Sydney bid, which did not canvass the problem of land contamination, to the Commission when it visited Sydney earlier in the year. Bell's submission made sufficient impression on the IOC for it to make special mention of Greenpeace's involvement in the Sydney bid in its Inquiry Commission Report into where to hold the year 2000 Olympics published in July. It "noted with much satisfaction the great emphasis being placed on environmental protection in all aspects of the bidding process and the attention being paid to working closely with environmental protection groups such as Greenpeace".
Greenpeace's involvement in the Sydney bid arises from its participation in the design of the proposed Olympic Village which Bell claims "provides a prototype of future environmentally friendly urban development for Australian cities and indeed all cities around the world". Bell's focus on the development of a showcase Olympic village represents the new face of Greenpeace which aims to promote solutions rather than just sound the alarm on environmental problems as it has done for the past 20 years.
However, not all Greenpeace campaigners are so ready to overlook the problems of land contamination. Robert Cartmel, a toxics campaigner for Greenpeace Australia, who specialises in chlorine related issues, says that "there is every likelihood that the remediation measures being undertaken at Homebush Bay won't measure up." He says that this is "an area that would be considered to be a Superfund site in the US." He warns that "when it comes to leakage of toxic materials, it is not a question of if, it is a question of when. There is no such thing as a safe landfill".
Whatever the truth about the long-term safety of the Homebush site, it is clear that a full public discussion of the toxic waste question has been suppressed by the desire of the government to win the Olympics and the desire of some environmentalists to be seen as "positive". Yet the absense of public debate and the short-cut, low-cost remediation measures are anything but "green". The claim that the 2000 Olympics will be green should be seen in the same light as other green marketing claims, as a superficial attempt to sell a product rather than a genuine attempt at change.
1 Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 1992.
Professor Sharon Beder is a visiting professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at http://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb