Citation: Sharon Beder,'Sydney's Olympic Landscape: A Toxic Cover-up', Search 27 (7) August 1996, pp. 209-211.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Last month the Olympic Coordination Authority boasted that "when athletes arrive to compete in the year 2000 they will have little idea that the Homebush Bay site was once a waste dump." However Sharon Beder points out that the toxic waste will still be there when the athletes arrive and questions whether international best practice has been applied.

The remediation strategy for the Homebush site, as outlined by the Olympic Coordination Authority (Search, July 1996) involves neither treatment of the toxic waste at the site, nor its removal. Rather it is an attempt at containment. The Authority described how contaminated soil and waste material has been collected together in a 20 metre high mound near Haslams Creek which is being capped with a metre of compacted clay and beautifully landscaped so that the international athletes will have no idea what is beneath the surface.

But beneath the grass and the thousands of native plants on the "sculpted landform that hugs the southern bank of Haslams Creek" there will be heavy metals, hydrocarbons, asbestos, pesticides and putrescible wastes. In 1991 groundwater leaching from the wastes in this area was found to contain elevated levels of chlorobenzenes, chloromethanes and chloroethylenes presumably leached out of the dumped material. The surface seep water contained elevated levels of chlorobenzene, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, ammonium, fluoride, barium, copper, zinc and other metals.[1]

The metre of clay capping and the drains between the creek and the waste mound have been put in place in an attempt to prevent any surface seep or leachate from reaching the public or the creek. However the mound of toxic wastes is not lined underneath as is expected in modern hazardous landfill dumps. The Authority has also conceived a rather extraordinary plan to recirculate captured leachate for irrigation.

In normal circumstances it is unlikely that an unlined hazardous waste landfill site would be approved on this site because of the risks of groundwater contamination and unexpected leachate movements. There would be noisy protests from local residents and environmentalists. However, there are special circumstances that seem to have allowed normal precautions to be waived. No environmental impact statement has been prepared and publicly displayed. The reports examining the contamination of the site, the possible remediation options and the risks associated with the toxic waste have not been published.[2]

Moreover the environmental watchdogs have been strangely silent on this one. This can be largely explained by the close involvement of Greenpeace Australia and other key environmentalists with the Olympic Games and their focus on the development of Olympic facilities as a showcase for environmentally friendly technologies. It was convenient for them, as it was for the government, to quietly ignore the real environmental problem associated with the site.

Best Practice?

There are clearly two approaches to dealing with the risks to human and environmental health posed by a hazardous waste site. One is to lesson those risks by reducing the contamination through treatment or removal of 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.

In the US under Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) provisions, permanent treatment of contaminated soils is preferred to non-treatment containment systems[3] such as those being applied at Homebush Bay. Treatment is also the approach preferred by the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) which published guidelines for contaminated sites in January 1992.[4]

The NSW government has chosen the cheaper, quicker and less reliable approach of containment. The Homebush Bay Authority argues that the technology to treat this mixture of toxic waste is just not available. Others disagree. People in the industry, such as environmental consultant Beven Schwaiger, say that substances such as dioxin and heavy metals can be separated out and that this would remove some of the worst contaminants and reduce the amount of contaminated soil that had to be dealt with.[5] However treatment takes time.

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.[6]


Although no additional site allowances were given to the workers dealing with waste material on the site, monitoring was installed to protect workers' health. If levels of waste in the air exceeded set levels then the site was supposed to be closed down. For example, at the State Sports Centre monitoring was carried out for chromium 6 and benzene (both carcinogens). In the vicinity of the Aquatic Centre monitoring was done for arsenic and asbestos fibres. Dust was collected and analysed.[7]

The Olympic Coordinating Authority said that the diversion of the creek near the State Sports Centre was to allow "the free movement of fish" however the decision was actually 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.[8] Groundwater in the area had elevated levels of chlorobenzenes, organochlorines and cyanide. Surface water in the creek was 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.[9]

Wastes from around this creek have been "consolidated" in one area, covered with a metre of clay and shale and made into a golf range. Beneath the grassy slopes are an accumulation of arsenic, lead, cadmium, asbestos, pesticides and low concentrations of dioxins and dibenzofurans. Drains are supposed to catch the contaminated leachate from this area.

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. ICF 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.[10] 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 was conducting ongoing investigations into this but its reports have not been published.

Environmental effects from toxic waste sites 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."[11]

A 1991 study of aquatic sediments and fauna in Homebush Bay commissioned by the State Pollution Control Commission[12] 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".[13] Fishing in Homebush Bay is currently banned because of contamination of the fish. 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.[14]

Public Consultation?

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".[15]

The government authorities claim there has been extensive community consultation in this case. Groups consulted involved Greenpeace and a local group called Greenspace which apparently consisted of three married couples who organised exhibitions and translators for the local community. Also there was a specially selected environmental advisory committee and newsletters and brochures were distributed by the Property Services Group.

However many local residents do not feel there has been adequate public consultation and participation. A survey of local residents undertaken in 1992 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.[16]

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. A Regional Environmental Plan prepared by the NSW Department of Planning removed mandatory requirements for an EIS to be prepared for earthworks on the site that had been subject to landfilling. It gave the NSW Minister for Planning full authority to give consent for development of the area earmarked for Olympic facilities and allowed development of the contaminated land within the area, including landfilling, removal and reworking of filled material to occur without the normal consultation process.

It is clear that public discussion of the toxic waste question has been discouraged. However, the international media will be turning its attention to Sydney after the Atlanta Olympics are over. Then the world is likely to discover that Australian boasts of running a green 2000 Olympics are built on short-cut, low-cost remediation measures that are anything but green.


[1] See for example Dames and Moore, 'Site remediation works: Haslams Creek North, Homebush Bay Development, NSW', report for Property Services Group, 11 July 1991.

[2] For example ICF Pty. Ltd., 'Health and environmental risk assessment for dioxins: Homebush Bay Redevelopment Area, volume 8, prepared for Property Services Group of NSW, 5 February 1993,

[3] Paul Bishop, 'Contaminant Leaching from Solidified-Stabilized Wastes', in D.William Tedder and Frederick Pohland, eds, Emerging Technologies in Hazardous Waste Management II, American Chemical Society, Washington DC, 1991, p. 303.

[4] Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for the Assessment and Management of Contaminated Sites, Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council, National Health and Medical Research Council, January 1992.

[5] 7.30 Report, ABC Television, 1993.

[6] John Pym, paper delivered at 1993 Environment Institute of Australia National Conference, Homebush Bay Field Trip, 22 September 1993.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Site guide at 1993 Environment Institute of Australia National Conference, Homebush Bay Field Trip, 22 September 1993.

[9] See for example Dames and Moore, `Site remediation works: State Sports Centre, Homebush Bay Development, NSW', report for Property Services Group, 1991.

[10] ICF Pty. Ltd., Volume 2 of 7, report prepared for Property Services Group of NSW, 1993.

[11] Stuart Nicholson and Nirander Safaya, `Restoring Hazardous Waste Sites', Environment, Science and Technology 27(6), 1993, p. 1022.

[12] predecessor of the NSW Environmental Protection Authority, EPA.

[13] Norman Rubinstein and John Wicklund, `Dioxin contamination of sediment and marine fauna in Homebush Bay', report for the State Pollution Control Commission, January 1991, p. 12.

[14] Personal communication with Dr John Pollack, Total Environment Centre.

[15] Australian and New Zealand Guidelines, op.cit., pp. 7,9

[16] Greens In Lowe, 'Survey - Homebush Bay Development', 1992.