A Cleaner Arena

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At first glance they don't look like much more than good spots for a picnic: five gently sloping mounds dotted around the main Olympic site at Homebush Bay. Covered with grass and huge--one of them, Kronos Hill, is 25 m high and covers 30 hectares--they give striking views across the venues that, in less than a month, will host thousands of athletes and up to 600,000 spectators a day. But these man-made hills weren't created for sightseeing or picnics. Beneath the landscaping and a meter of clay, they're made of landfill, 9 million cu. m of waste scraped up from across the site, which throughout the 1960s and '70s was an unregulated dumping ground for everything from pesticides and petrochemicals to tar and asbestos. At the base of the mounds are drains to catch leachate--water that passes through contaminated soil--and stop it reaching groundwater and nearby creeks. On average, 140,000 liters of leachate are collected each day and sent to the neighboring Lidcombe Liquid Waste Treatment Plant for processing. "Every time I look at those mounds," says Kate Hughes, director of the Olympic Coordination Authority's Ecology Programs, "I think, 'That's the 20th century for you.'"

Reminders of the site's noxious past are everywhere at Homebush: in the mounds, in the adjacent wetlands--slowly recovering after being scoured of about 750,000 cu. m of waste, enough to fill 250 Olympic-sized pools--and in the nearby Homebush Bay waterway, which is heavily contaminated with dioxins. That history ensured a high profile for environmental issues from the moment in 1993 when Sydney won the contest to host the Games with Homebush as the main venue. To give their bid an extra edge, organizers promised that Sydney's Games would be a model of environmental responsibility and presented a 25-page list of guidelines for achieving that goal. With the Olympics at hand, now is Sydney's time of reckoning. How green will the Games be?

Not green enough, say many of the environmentalists who have followed the preparations. "Some amazing environmental successes [but] a number of key opportunities missed," was Greenpeace's final assessment, in mid-August. These Games will be largely car-free--spectators will have to catch public transport to the venues--but most of the drinks they buy will be stored in regular refrigerators, which use ozone-depleting fluorocarbons. Visitors will use only biodegradable cutlery--made of cornstarch-based plastic--and recyclable plastic cups, but in most venues they'll be kept cool by fluorocarbon-based air-conditioning systems. At Homebush, they'll walk around at night under 19 solar-powered light towers, but if they want an ice-cream while they wander, it will probably come in a non-recyclable foil wrapper. All in all, says Jeff Angel, director of New South Wales' Total Environment Centre, "it's a semi-green Games--good in parts and not so good in others."

Organizers are "proud of the result," says Michael Bland, head of environmental communications for the Games and a former Greenpeace employee. "We've got a good story to tell." In many areas, environmental activists agree. They have praised the athletes' village, with solar panels on 665 homes, recycled-water systems and minimal PVC use. Of some 10,000 tons of garbage expected to be generated during the Games, organizers aim to recycle or compost 80%. And the consumption of potable water will be halved thanks to a new recycling scheme.

But in other areas, say green groups, Games organizers and sponsors haven't tried hard enough. The environmental guidelines, which cover such goals as energy and water conservation, aren't binding, and the use of ozone-depleting coolants and petrol-fueled official cars directly contravenes them. Bob Symington, head of the government-funded Green Games Watch 2000, accuses Games organizers of being unduly secretive--a charge they reject--and reluctant to justify decisions that flouted the guidelines: "Their view was that [the environmental issue] was a hurdle they had to jump over."

The biggest job organizers faced was the cleanup of the land itself. In all, almost $80 million was spent on improving the 760-ha site, of which 160 ha were deemed contaminated. Workers wore protective clothing during on-site testing. Deadly dioxins, byproducts of PVC production and incineration, were found buried deep underground. The worst of the waste--around 400 tons, reduced to 16,000 liters of toxic concentrate--is now being rendered harmless at a plant behind one of the mounds. Though it won't be completed in time for the Games, the non-incinerating heat and chemical treatment has so far been a success--and has won the approval of environmentalists.

They're less supportive of plans to store most of the site's waste in the mounds indefinitely. That approach is a "superficial solution," says University of Wollongong science and society professor Sharon Beder. "It's inadequate long term. You'll get leakage; maybe it's already leaking into the groundwater. All they've done is reduce the risk to people on site." But the OCA's Kate Hughes, a toxics campaigner for 20 years and co-author of the Games' original green guidelines, says the mounds are among Australia's "most well-managed remediated sites." Bland agrees that the best available methods of storage and remediation were used. "There has to be a very strong distinction," he adds, "between where people are going to live and where they play sport. And people don't play sport for more than a few hours a day."

Greenpeace toxics campaigner Mark Oakwood isn't convinced. "What its fate will be in five, 10 or 20 years when the funding dries up and the leachate starts to shift and the pipes break down--what happens then hasn't been determined," he says. Hughes says the government will establish a special body to manage the site and oversee a regular monitoring regime, testing the mounds every three months and the leachate every six months. Her team is setting up a protocol for monitoring the local environment, though she confirms there will be no routine checks on whether leachate is seeping into groundwater. "There's got to be an end to where you test," Hughes says, "and a leap of faith that ... the mounds and the leachate system are robust." Ravi Naidu, a specialist in contaminated environments remediation at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is impressed, though he thinks groundwater should be tested. "Unless you monitor [the containment system] for a sustained period," he says, "you don't know if it will work as you think it will."

The chief blemish on the Games' green credentials, say environmentalists, is Homebush Bay, next to the Olympic site. The fate of the waterway--one of Australia's most polluted areas--and a nearby site formerly owned by chemicals giant Union Carbide, has been widely debated in recent years. The state government failed to clean them up in time for the Games, but last week it announced that a $50 million project to remediate some 500,000 cu. m of soil and 3 ha of the bay, and develop the site, will start in 2001. So poisoned by chemicals that fishing in the bay is banned, the area will take years to fix. But Transport Minister Carl Scully says it will eventually be safe enough to become a new suburb: "This is an opportunity to clean and renew. It is a legacy for the future of Sydney."

And what will be the legacy of the "green Games"? Some environmentalists think it will be positive: promoting environmentally sound building practices, solar power, recycling, and new techniques for treating hazardous waste. Others, like the University of Wollongong's Beder, fear that would-be Olympic host cities will see "greenness" less as a commitment to the environment than as a way to sugar-coat their bids. Sydney's Games, and the International Olympic Committee's choice of environmentalism as its third pillar, alongside sport and culture, have put the spotlight on green issues. Whether that illumination lasts will be for future Games organizers to decide.