As the bidding and selection process for the 2000 Olympics got underway, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made it clear that it wanted to have a “green” Olympics. For Australia, therefore, it was critical to present its bid as “green” despite the toxic waste buried at Homebush Bay.
The co-option of Greenpeace was a key factor in the success of this campaign. The organization had campaigned against hazardous landfill dumps for many years, so its support for the Homebush Bay Olympic site helped reassure a public that might otherwise have been concerned about the site’s toxic history.
To win over Greenpeace, Sydney Olympics 2000 Bid Ltd (SOBL) invited it to draw up environmental guidelines for the construction and operation of the Olympic facilities. The proposed design of the Olympic athletes’ village was developed by a consortium of architects, including a firm commissioned by Greenpeace. On paper, the design looked impressive. It provided for the use of solar technology and solar designs, state-of-the-art energy generation, and waste water recycling systems.
For Greenpeace, participation in developing a showcase Olympic village offered another benefit: the opportunity to transform its own image. Instead of simply sounding the alarm on environmental problems as it had done for the previous twenty years, the “new Greenpeace” would be seen as promoting solutions.
Greenpeace involvement in the Sydney bid soon went beyond simply offering ideas: it became a vocal supporter. Karla Bell (pictured), cities and coasts campaigner for Greenpeace, made a statement supporting the environmental merits of the full bid when the IOC visited Sydney early in 1993. Her statement did not mention the problem of land contamination. She made an obvious impression on the IOC, whose report in July of that year “noted with much satisfaction the great emphasis being placed on environmental protection in all aspects of the bidding process and the attention being paid to working closely with environmental protection groups such as Greenpeace”.
Support also came from Paul Gilding, the head at the time of Greenpeace International who previously had headed Greenpeace Australia. “The Olympic village provides a prototype of future environmentally friendly development not only for Australia, but for cities all around the world,” Gilding stated in a March 1993 news release.
Sydney Olympics 2000 Bid Ltd (SOBL) hired Karla Bell and Kate Short (now Kate Hughes) of the Sydney Total Environment Centre (TEC) to draw up environmental guidelines for the Games. Short was a prominent Sydney environmentalist who had a long history of campaigning on toxic issues, particularly pesticides. Short and other environmentalists and consultants were also appointed to a special environmental task force advising SOBL.
Some environmentalists, however, remained sceptical. The TEC distanced itself from Short’s involvement, and TEC director Jeff Angel argued that the Sydney Olympic bid was ignoring significant environmental problems. “The state of Sydney’s environment has been misrepresented to a serious degree,” he said. “For example, the [New South Wales] Premier in his Introduction to the Bid’s Fact Sheets describes the Games as occurring in a pollution-free environment. The bid document asserts Sydney’s waste system can cope, when in fact we have a waste crisis.”
Environmentalists were also concerned about the diversion of revenue into extravagant sports facilities and the loss of valued local ecosystems. Environmentalists were particularly angry when they discovered that the official bid document to the IOC claimed support from various environmental groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation, the New South Wales Nature Conservation Council and the TEC. Although individuals affiliated with those organizations had joined the bid committee’s environmental task force, the groups themselves emphatically denied their support. The statement had to be retracted.
Notwithstanding these misgivings, the issue of toxic contamination of the site was not openly discussed prior to the Olympic decision. This was clearly because of the inaccessibility of relevant information and the successful co-option of key environmentalists who reassured others that the site was being cleaned up properly.
In private communications at the time of the bidding process, Greenpeace’s toxics campaigner Robert Cartmel told me that “there is every likelihood that the remediation measures being undertaken at Homebush Bay won’t measure up”. He said that this was “an area that would be considered to be a Superfund site” in the US. He warned that “when it comes to leakage of toxic materials, it is not a question of if, it is a question of when. There is no such thing as a safe landfill.” Yet Cartmel was unwilling to publicly criticize Greenpeace’s involvement in the Olympics bidding process.
The promised measures, particularly the village design and the environmental guidelines, were heralded as a major environmental breakthrough in urban design. “No other event at the beginning of the 21st Century will have a greater impact on protecting the environment than the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney,” stated a SOBL news release.
New South Wales minister Bruce Baird said that Sydney’s Olympics would be an environmental showpiece to the rest of the world and a model for other cities to follow in future games. Ros Kelly, the Federal Minister for Environment, Sport and Territories, also put out a news release arguing that “a vote by the international community for Sydney will be a vote for the environment”.
Once the bid was won, however, the government’s lack of genuine commitment to a green Olympics became apparent. It discarded the winning village design, the one that was supposed to be a showcase of green technology. The consortium of architects that had designed the village, including the Greenpeace-commissioned architects, complained of being “absolutely shafted”. Within a year, Greenpeace was forced to denounce the government’s failure to keep to the environmental guidelines written by Short and Bell.
Cost considerations also led the planners to quietly shelve another environmental showcase, the Olympic Pavilion and Visitors Centre. The original design had envisaged a centre made of recycled materials with natural ventilation.
In 1994, Paul Gilding resigned as head of Greenpeace International and went into business for himself as an environmental consultant. One of his clients was Lend Lease/Mirvac, the same company that had participated in behind-the-scenes strategizing to win the Sydney bid. Lend Lease was hired to draw up a new plan for the athletes’ village. The new village design, unveiled in 1995, was touted as environmental because it used solar technology, even though the plans called for the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as a building material.
Greenpeace has campaigned internationally against the use of PVCs, and the environmental guidelines which it helped draft for the Sydney Olympic Games had called for “minimizing and ideally avoiding the use of chlorine-based products (organochlorines) such as PCB, PVC and chlorinated bleached paper”. The Olympic Coordination Authority’s decision to abandon this commitment came in the wake of a deliberate public relations campaign by the plastics and chemical industry.
In 1995, Andrew Byrne of the Sydney Morning Herald revealed how Australia’s Plastics and Chemical Industries Association (PACIA) was financing a campaign to undermine commitments to a PVC-free Games. PACIA was concerned that making the village a PVC-free showpiece would add momentum to the Greenpeace campaign against organochlorines—a reasonable fear, since that was precisely the point behind the original environmental recommendations.
Using contributions from member companies, the PACIA launched a PVC Defence Action Fund for the purpose of bringing pro-PVC experts from Europe to brief key government officials. Other tactics detailed in a document obtained by Byrne included enlarging its Olympic lobbying program, developing a “credibility file” on Greenpeace, and promoting the benefits of PVC on the internet. PVC manufacturer James Hardie even became a member of the Olympic Village planning consortium.
The government continued with its own PR activities, offering guided tours of the Olympic site to the public, and announcing a major tree-planting effort coordinated by a “Greener Sydney 2000” committee, which would provide “a unique opportunity to involve the whole community in the 2000 Olympics”. A landscaping project for the site was heralded as greening the site, even though the toxic waste beneath remained untreated.
As evidence of toxic contamination of the site filtered out, environmentalists involved in the Olympics bidding began to change their stories. In 1995, ‘Four Corners’, the ABC’s major television current affairs program, featured Greenpeace and Kate Short criticizing the cover-up of the site’s toxic contamination (which they had known about all along, but had previously refrained from mentioning).
In subsequent years, Greenpeace staged various actions to highlight dioxin contamination in the vicinity of the Olympic site. “Our investigations show that not only is the ‘Green Games’ concept rapidly becoming a cynical farce, but that the presence of high levels of dioxin at Homebush Bay presents a real environmental and health threat”, stated one Greenpeace news release. David Richmond, the head of the Olympic Coordination Authority (OCA), responded by accusing green groups who highlighted toxic contamination of the Games site as doing “damage to Australia”.
Although involvement in the Olympic Games has been an environmental embarrassment, it has also been a goldmine of opportunities for the individuals and organizations that supported the Sydney bid. The Sydney Morning Herald became a “Team Millennium Partner” for the Games, and it established a unit to “maximize the associated commercial opportunities”.
Karla Bell and Paul Gilding both left Greenpeace to become consultants to companies seeking contracts to construct Olympic facilities. Both have also participated as paid consultants in preparing Stockholm’s bid for the 2004 Olympics.
By contrast, Robert Cartmel, the Greenpeace campaigner whose misgivings kept him from joining in the campaign to greenwash Homebush Bay, has since been squeezed out of his job.
Greenpeace continues to promote the Games as “green”. On its “Greenpeace’s Green Olympics Campaign” website, Greenpeace stated that “the Olympic site itself has been made safe”, and a June 1999 Greenpeace brochure stated 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’s credibility. For years it campaigned against disposing of toxic waste by landfill, particularly when it includes dioxin, organochlorines and heavy metals, because it is impossible to prevent toxic material from leaking into underlying groundwater. The major landfills on the Olympic site contain these sorts of wastes without even the protection of linings to mitigate the flow of leachate through the underlying soil. However, when questioned, Greenpeace’s current Olympic campaigners didn’t seem to know this—which raises the question of the basis for the organization labelling the landfills as “state of the art”.
An earlier Greenpeace International brochure entitled “Waste Generation: The Real Source of the Problem” states: “There is no safe way to dispose of toxic waste. The solution is not to produce it in the first place.” It explains: “Searching for new ways of disposing of waste is the worst possible way of dealing with the problem. Toxic chemicals leak from landfills.” In criticizing Browning-Ferris Industries in one of its Greenwash Snapshots (Greenwash Snapshot #15: A case study in waste disposal, 1992), Greenpeace International pointed to the company’s dependence on landfills, saying that “landfills will pose a severe threat to underground water supplies for many decades to come”.
In its own literature, Greenpeace still states that “landfills eventually leak pollution into the surrounding environment”, and makes it clear that this is not a suitable disposal method for toxic waste found near the Olympic site. Yet, as part of its green marketing role, Greenpeace has turned round and stated categorically that an unlined landfill on the Olympic site is “safe”.
Darryl Luscombe, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace, wrote in a 1997 letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald that Greenpeace had long advocated the closure of Castlereagh, a landfill facility which leaked despite being chosen for its impermeable clay soil (unlike the more permeable soils at the Olympic site). When asked what he thought of the landfills on the site, he said that it was his opinion that the biggest issue was what was going to happen to the waste afterwards. The landfills should only be a temporary solution, he argued, since “tens of thousands of litres” of material was leaching out of them. He admitted there was “no guarantee” that the government would do anything more, since the Olympic Coordinating Authority would cease to exist and the government had made no commitments to do any further remediation after the Games.
When asked if it was realistic to expect that any further clean-up would occur on site after the Games, Luscombe claimed that “the site is safer than it was”, and pointed out that whereas before there was a toxic waste dump, “now there is a toxic waste dump that is more highly managed”.
The precautionary principle suggests that landfill should not be used to dispose of toxic material, yet Greenpeace is now undermining this 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 landfill as a safe means of disposal of toxic waste. Greenpeace has helped turn the site and its surrounds into highly desirable real estate. It is now suggesting that this can be done elsewhere.
It is an example that other potential host cities for the Olympic Games have taken up. For example, when Toronto was bidding for the 2008 Games, and in an effort to similarly put together a “green” bid, it formed an environmental committee. Luscombe travelled to Toronto to attend this committee’s first meeting. Toronto has even copied the idea of siting the Olympic athletes’ village on a contaminated former industrial site. The land was originally going to be the site of low-income housing but the remediation would have cost too much. Now the Sydney Olympic example has shown Toronto how the clean-up can be done on the cheap. The added bonus for the Toronto bidders is that, if they promise to turn the village over to low-income housing afterwards, they might get social justice groups on side. These groups opposed Toronto’s bid in 1996.
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 organizers, but also manufacturers that generate toxic wastes, those that bury them, and developers that 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 boost by Greenpeace itself.
The landfills are not the only waste problem associated with the Olympic site. In 1997 Luscombe made a submission to the government on its plans to expand the Lidcombe Liquid Waste Plant (LWP). The plant is located between the Olympic sporting facilities and the athletes’ village. Luscombe argued that the plant “should be phased out as a matter of priority”. Amongst the concerns he raised in his submission were the “health and safety issues associated with the close proximity (240 metres) of the LWP to existing or proposed residential areas (eg. Newington/Olympic village)” and its “potential to contribute significant adverse effects on the area during major public events such as the Olympics”. He also noted the “complaints from nearby residents regarding noxious odours and VOC [volatile organochlorine] emissions from the LWP”. He claimed that “a facility that emits toxic, carcinogenic, persistent and bioaccumulative compounds to the environment, particularly within 250 metres of residential housing, clearly contradicts all of the principles of sound urban planning and environmental responsibility.”
Yet the proximity of the athletes’ village to the Liquid Waste Plant was known to Greenpeace when it offered its design for the village; and the current Greenpeace literature on the “Green Games”, whilst praising the solar design of the village and the other environmental virtues of the Olympic Games, makes no mention of the plant and the dangers it poses.
When Blair Palese, the international coordinator of Greenpeace’s Olympics campaign, was queried about Greenpeace’s willingness to label the Olympics as “green” despite the landfills on site, the waste plant emitting toxic emissions in its midst, and the use of ozone depletors in Olympic venues, she pointed to Greenpeace’s Olympics report card which gave marks for various aspects of the Games. She said that because Greenpeace failed the Olympic Coordinating Authority for refrigeration and cooling, as well as for its clean-up of the land and bay surrounding the Olympic site, Greenpeace was not greenwashing the Games. (The scorecard did not mention the Liquid Waste Plant, and gave the clean-up of toxic waste on site a “B” for “bare minimum effort”.) Blair saw nothing wrong with continuing to label the Games as “green” and maintaining their Greenpeace endorsement: “Greenpeace doesn’t believe anything is perfect”, she said. “We don’t believe demanding absolute success in advance makes sense.”
Greenpeace’s Olympics campaigner Michael Bland told New Scientist: “You can’t promote these as the green Games on the world stage while at the same time allowing the use of HCFCs in the cooling system of one of the main venues, especially when there are alternatives such as ammonia”. Yet this is just what Greenpeace is doing, despite its scorecard. Contrary to his comments to New Scientist, Michael Bland—like Blair Palese—has no problems with Greenpeace publicizing the Games as “green”, despite its environmental problems. “We’re just using a bit of rhetoric to get our point across”, he says.