Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Green gloss over toxic Olympics site', Canberra Times, 23 September 1999, p. 10.

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

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

When the Olympic Games begin in Sydney next year, they are likelyto be proclaimed the greenest summer Olympics of all time. Butbeneath the fine landscaping of the Olympic site will lie one ofAustralia's worst toxic waste dumps. It will be covered by a metre ofdirt and a mountain of PR.

The Olympic Games will be held at Homebush Bay, a disusedindustrial site subject to years of unregulated waste dumping. Heavymetals, asbestos contaminated wastes and chemical wastes includingdioxins and pesticides, have been found on the site.

In 1989 when government authorities decided to use Homebush Bay asthe site for a future Olympic Games it was estimated that it wouldcost $190 million to contain and treat much of the waste to make wayfor Olympic facilities. This was considered to be too expensive andthey sought a cheaper, more modest remediation strategy that could becarried out in time for the 1993 Olympic bid. The shortcomings of thewaste treatment were to be glossed over with a PR campaign that wouldshift the environmental spotlight away from the waste altogether.When the toxic waste issue did emerge, this inferior remediationstrategy was promoted as being "world's best practice".

Government authorities considered various options for dealing withthese wastes. They dismissed segregation and treating of wastematerials as too difficult and expensive. A 'Bank Vault'approach&emdash;containing the contaminated soil with double linersbeneath, soil capping over the top, leachate drains and gascollection and treatment systems&emdash;was tried for a badlycontaminated embankment where the Olympic swimming facility was to bebuilt 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, butto dispense with the gas collection and treatment systems and thedouble liners. The soil capping and leachate drains around theperimeter would be retained. This option meant that the wastes wouldcontinue to leak into underlying ground water but it was cheaper.Also the government believed that the 'leaky landfill' approach wouldpose less liability problems, presumably because it would leak slowlyand imperceptibly over a long period of time and problems would notbe easily traced back to the toxic waste.

The public justification for this remediation strategy was that itwas the only feasible option, given the difficulty of treating such adiverse range of chemicals that were present on the site and thedangers involved in moving these toxic wastes off site. The option ofa more secure landfill was not discussed outside of consultants'reports.

The cost of remediation of the Olympic site based on this strategywas $69 million including landscaping and road base preparations, farless than the original estimate of $190 million for morecomprehensive remediation. It enabled most of the remediation to becompleted by 1993, in time for Sydney to win the bid for the 2000Olympic Games. (Subsequent remediation of other areas including theathlete's village site added considerably to the cost.)

The Sydney Olympics bid company would not have achieved thisimpressive PR coup of promoting the Olympic Games as 'green' despitethem being sited in the midst of a massive toxic waste site withoutthe involvement and support of Greenpeace. After campaigning aboutthe dangers of hazardous landfill dumps for many years, Greenpeace'ssupport of the Games bid was very reassuring to the public and toother environmentalists who were not privy to the extent ofcontamination of the site and the inadequacy of the clean upmethods.

Greenpeace continues to promote the Games as 'green'. On itscurrent "Greenpeace's Green Olympics Campaign" web site Greenpeacestates that "the Olympic site itself has been made safe" and a June1999 Greenpeace brochure states that "Sydney authorities werethorough 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 yearsit has campaigned against disposing of toxic waste by landfill,particularly when it includes dioxin, organochlorines and heavymetals, because it was impossible to prevent toxic material fromleaking into underlying groundwater. In its own literature GreenpeaceAustralia still states "landfills eventually leak pollution into thesurrounding environment". Yet, on behalf of the Olympic authorities,Greenpeace Australia has turned round and stated categorically thatan unlined landfill on the Olympic site is "safe".

The precautionary principle suggests that landfill should not beused to dispose of toxic material yet Greenpeace is now underminingthat principle. Whether it admits it or not, its public acceptance ofthe 'remediation' process on the Olympic site, and its activepromotion of the Olympics as green, has been interpreted as anendorsement of land-fill as a safe means of disposal of toxic waste.Greenpeace has helped turn the site and its surrounds into highlydesirable real estate.

And don't think the Olympic precedent is being lost on developersin other parts of Australia. The 'remediation' at the Olympic site isalready being used as a model for other contaminated sites. Thegreenwashing in this case suits not only the Olympic organisers, butalso manufacturers who generate toxic wastes, those who bury them,and developers who seek to profit from the land on which these toxicwastes have been buried. A whole polluting industry that Greenpeacehas been trying to phase out has now been given a PR boon byGreenpeace, Australia.