Green gloss over toxic Olympics site
Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Green gloss over toxic Olympics site', Canberra Times, 23 September 1999, p. 10.
This is a final version submitted for publication.
When the Olympic Games begin in Sydney next year, they are likely to be proclaimed the greenest summer Olympics of all time. But beneath the fine landscaping of the Olympic site will lie one of Australia's worst toxic waste dumps. It will be covered by a metre of dirt and a mountain of PR.
The Olympic Games will be held at Homebush Bay, a disused industrial site subject to years of unregulated waste dumping. Heavy metals, asbestos contaminated wastes and chemical wastes including dioxins and pesticides, have been found on the site.
In 1989 when government authorities decided to use Homebush Bay as the site for a future Olympic Games it was estimated that it would cost $190 million to contain and treat much of the waste to make way for Olympic facilities. This was considered to be too expensive and they sought a cheaper, more modest remediation strategy that could be carried out in time for the 1993 Olympic bid. The shortcomings of the waste treatment were to be glossed over with a PR campaign that would shift the environmental spotlight away from the waste altogether. When the toxic waste issue did emerge, this inferior remediation strategy was promoted as being "world's best practice".
Government authorities considered various options for dealing with these wastes. They dismissed segregation and treating of waste materials as too difficult and expensive. A 'Bank Vault' approach&emdash;containing the contaminated soil with double liners beneath, soil capping over the top, leachate drains and gas collection and treatment systems&emdash;was tried for a badly contaminated embankment where the Olympic swimming facility was to be built but it was decided that this was too expensive.
The third option, which was chosen for the rest of the Games site, was to consolidate the landfill waste into a few areas on site, but to dispense with the gas collection and treatment systems and the double liners. The soil capping and leachate drains around the perimeter would be retained. This option meant that the wastes would continue to leak into underlying ground water but it was cheaper. Also the government believed that the 'leaky landfill' approach would pose less liability problems, presumably because it would leak slowly and imperceptibly over a long period of time and problems would not be easily traced back to the toxic waste.
The public justification for this remediation strategy was that it was the only feasible option, given the difficulty of treating such a diverse range of chemicals that were present on the site and the dangers involved in moving these toxic wastes off site. The option of a more secure landfill was not discussed outside of consultants' reports.
The cost of remediation of the Olympic site based on this strategy was $69 million including landscaping and road base preparations, far less than the original estimate of $190 million for more comprehensive remediation. It enabled most of the remediation to be completed by 1993, in time for Sydney to win the bid for the 2000 Olympic Games. (Subsequent remediation of other areas including the athlete's village site added considerably to the cost.)
The Sydney Olympics bid company would not have achieved this impressive PR coup of promoting the Olympic Games as 'green' despite them being sited in the midst of a massive toxic waste site without the involvement and support of Greenpeace. After campaigning about the dangers of hazardous landfill dumps for many years, Greenpeace's support of the Games bid was very reassuring to the public and to other environmentalists who were not privy to the extent of contamination of the site and the inadequacy of the clean up methods.
Greenpeace continues to promote the Games as 'green'. On its current "Greenpeace's Green Olympics Campaign" web site Greenpeace states that "the Olympic site itself has been made safe" and a June 1999 Greenpeace brochure states that "Sydney authorities were thorough in their efforts to remediate before construction began. Most of the waste remains on site, in state of the art land fills, covered with clay, vegetated to blend in with the Olympic site."
This raises several problems for Greenpeace credibility. For years it has campaigned against disposing of toxic waste by landfill, particularly when it includes dioxin, organochlorines and heavy metals, because it was impossible to prevent toxic material from leaking into underlying groundwater. In its own literature Greenpeace Australia still states "landfills eventually leak pollution into the surrounding environment". Yet, on behalf of the Olympic authorities, Greenpeace Australia has turned round and stated categorically that an unlined landfill on the Olympic site is "safe".
The precautionary principle suggests that landfill should not be used to dispose of toxic material yet Greenpeace is now undermining that principle. Whether it admits it or not, its public acceptance of the 'remediation' process on the Olympic site, and its active promotion of the Olympics as green, has been interpreted as an endorsement of land-fill as a safe means of disposal of toxic waste. Greenpeace has helped turn the site and its surrounds into highly desirable real estate.
And don't think the Olympic precedent is being lost on developers in other parts of Australia. The 'remediation' at the Olympic site is already being used as a model for other contaminated sites. The greenwashing in this case suits not only the Olympic organisers, but also manufacturers who generate toxic wastes, those who bury them, and developers who seek to profit from the land on which these toxic wastes have been buried. A whole polluting industry that Greenpeace has been trying to phase out has now been given a PR boon by Greenpeace, Australia.
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