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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sydney Goes for the Gold... and the Green

Air Date: Week of

AND THE GREEN – It may be winter in the northern latitudes, but Down Under in Sydney, Australia, residents are basking in sunshine, and thinking about warm-weather sports as they prepare to host the Summer 2000 Olympics. The upcoming games are the first to make protecting the environment an officially sanctioned priority. Australian environmental activists have been involved from the start, working with government officials in drafting the guidelines that helped Sydney win the Olympics bid in 1993. They are also monitoring the construction of the sports complexes and Olympic villages. Along the way, they've uncovered some problems that clash with the promises of "Green Games" in the year 2000. Margaret Evans reports.


CURWOOD: It may be winter in the northern latitudes, but down under in Sydney, Australia, residents are basking in sunshine and thinking about warm weather sports as they prepare to host the Summer Olympics in the year 2000. The upcoming games are the first to make protecting the environment an officially sanctioned priority. Australian environmental activists have been involved from the start, helping to draft the guidelines that helped Sydney win the Olympics bid in 1993. They're also monitoring the construction of the sports complexes and the Olympic villages. Along the way they've uncovered some problems that clash with the promises of green games in the year 2000. Margaret Evans reports.

(Construction sounds: engines, hammering)

EVANS: Construction is in overdrive here at Homebush Bay, the centerpiece of the Sydney Olympics. Some 45,000 athletes, team officials, and media, plus about half a million tourists are expected to flood in for the event. In past global games such an influx combined with a construction boom have overwhelmed the environment of host cities. The International Olympic Committee says it chose Sydney in part because the city promised to handle that strain and still deliver green games.

(Construction continues)

EVANS: Sydney's Homebush Bay may seem an unlikely choice for environment- friendly Olympics. In recent decades the area has hosted garbage dumps, an abattoir, salt works, brick works, and a naval armaments depot.

JAMES: It's a human disaster area which has nevertheless allowed various other species to flourish.

EVANS: Peggy James is an independent environment consultant. She's monitoring the Olympics for Green Games Watch, a government-funded group. James says Homebush is a degraded and fragile environment.

JAMES: Because it's been excluded from a lot of human access in recent years, it's allowed these, you know, a number of endangered species to flourish. We've got an endangered frog that's living out there amidst this horrible pollution. We've got a remnant woodland. We've got a wetland which supports a lot of migratory birds. So it's a really interesting challenge, because it is a wasteland, but it's one that needs to be repaired very carefully and with consideration of other species in mind, too.

EVANS: Homebush was chosen, James said, despite its pollution, because it was large enough and close enough to downtown Sydney. The government is spending some $130 million Australian dollars to rid the Olympic venues of pollution. And 2 years before the event the Australian branch of the group Greenpeace says Sydney's Green Games are generally on track.

BLAND: We have to keep in mind that the Olympic site now, the precinct where the athletes will be, where the officials will be, where the media will be, where all the spectators will be, is a very clean site.

EVANS: Michael Bland is the Olympics Campaigner for Greenpeace. He recently released the group's first report card on the Green Games.

BLAND: The good news first. We will have the world's largest solar suburb at the Olympic site, that's the Athletes Village. That means not just that it has solar electric cells on the roof and not just that it's got solar water heaters on the roof. The design and construction has been revolutionary in the housing context in this part of the world. That's a big plus.

EVANS: But the big minus, according to Bland, is contamination on the doorstep of the Olympics.

(Water splashes)

EVANS: The eastern shore of Homebush Bay is about 2 miles from the game stadium. It's adjacent to but not part of the Olympics precinct.

(More splashes)

EVANS: Originally, Homebush Bay was to be the Olympic ceremonial gateway, with athletes and dignitaries arriving by ferry from across Sydney Harbor. That plan has been scrapped, Bland says, because of concerns over dioxin in the sediments of the bay.

BLAND: It is the only place in Australia where it's illegal to catch the fish because of toxicity in the marine muds. We've found fish that we've caught in Homebush Bay that have a chemical signature when they're analyzed that's exactly the same as the chemical signature of the various forms of dioxin that are on the site.

EVANS: The dioxin waste at Homebush Bay was a byproduct of herbicides made in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Environmental activists and the Sydney Olympics organizers agree on the dangers of dioxin. They disagree on how to handle it. Greenpeace has dubbed Homebush a dioxin capitol of the world since mid last year, when it first took the media to the shores of the bay.

(News music up and under. Announcer: "Greenpeace has raised the alarm about an illegal stockpile of toxic waste right next to the main Olympic site...")

EVANS: The group's Olympics campaigner, Michael Bland, says activists have known about the former chemical site since the 1980s. Greenpeace investigators were on a routine inspection of the area last year when they found 70 44-gallon drums of chemical waste, most of which contained dioxin.

BLAND: Some of the drums were rusted open. They were in a small compound which was basically a chain-link fence with an handful of upright posts holding it up. It was a real mess, and it was exposed to the air and the sun and the rain.

EVANS: Greenpeace has secured the drums and isolated them in containers that are still on location. There's been no remediation or cleanup yet of the bay's sediments, as the government is still considering what to do with the contamination. Some activists claim Olympic officials are slow in responding to the dioxin dilemma on their doorstep, but Dr. Kate Hughes, a special advisor to the state-funded Olympic Coordination Authority, says the agency is not downplaying the problem.

HUGHES: Yes, the Olympic site was once a waste dump. Yes, we have dug up drum remnants containing scheduled waste. Yes, Homebush Bay, the bay itself, is next to the Olympic site. That's got nothing to do with the OCI, it's outside our jurisdiction. My concern is with the mixture of hazardous chemicals. Our approach has been to close exposure pathways. The issue with dioxin is not its toxicity, it's whether or not people are exposed, and they are not exposed.

EVANS: Dr. Hughes, along with environmental activists, claim that Union Carbide is responsible for the dioxide contamination. The company manufactured pesticides and other chemicals at a site on the eastern shore of Homebush Bay form 1957 to 1986. Union Carbide says it stopped sending dioxin to disposal in 1970, after scientists identified its toxicity. The company closed its plant in 1986 and started an environmental cleanup program, which it completed during negotiations to sell the property.

COX: So those drums that you saw on the television, we viewed as very highly unlikely that it came from a Carbide plant.

EVANS: Bill Cox is Union Carbide's managing director in Australia.

COX: And the company was sold under full disclosure. And our view is that responsibilities passed on to the buyer of the company and any future claims emanating from the site.

EVANS: Right now the state government is considering whether to take action against past polluters. In the meantime it has committed some $21 million Australian dollars for remediation of the marine muds. Even so, the State Environmental Protection Authority warns the bay itself might not be contamination-free by the year 2000. But Peter Yates, the EPA's Director of Special Projects, insists the problem will not affect people attending the Olympics.

YATES: That land is not to be used for the Games, nor is the waterway to be used for the Games. And the fact that those sediments and land very tightly bind up the dioxin that is there means that there will be no effect at all in terms of environmental impact or on human health of anyone that's associated with the Games.

(Construction sounds continue)

EVANS: With bulldozers and back hoes, the cleanup continues at the Olympics complex. The International Olympic Committee says Sydney is following its environmental guidelines and respecting its pledge to stage the first official Green Games. Committee members say they're aware of dioxin contamination near the Games in Homebush Bay, but they argue that site is out of the Olympics jurisdiction. And they say its safety rests in the hands of the Australian government. For Living on Earth, this is Margaret Evans in Sydney.



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