Let the Spin Begin!
Citation: The following is the text of an annotated map which appeared as Sharon Beder, 'Let the Spin Begin!', Harper's Magazine, May 2000, pp. 50-1
This is a final version submitted for publication.
Amid acres of toxic waste, Sydney goes for Olympic green, by Sharon Beder
Australia won its 1993 bid to host the 2000 Olympics by promising to make them the greenest ever, and if you're going to Sydney this September, expect to hear paeans to Mother Nature performed more frequently than the Olympic Hymn. Promoters have even given the environment its own mascot, a Pepto Bismol--colored platypus named Syd. "If Syd sees anybody littering the land or polluting the water," quoth the official Web site, "he won't hesitate to thump his tail and let them know what he thinks." Rest assured Syd won't find any occasion for tail-thumping at Sydney's new $1.3 billion Olympic Park, the official map of which is shown here; organizers have greened every inch of this former toxic waste dump's 1,900 acres using the most cost-effective cleanup method available: public relations.
This "village," built to house athletes and officials, is little more than a $360 million Potemkin trailer park. After the International Olympic Committee declared itself an official sponsor of the environment in 1992, organizers seized upon a Greenpeace proposal to make the Olympic Village "a model of environmental protection," only to abandon it once the bid was won in favor of a more "bankable" design drafted by a consortium of Sydney's largest developers. When the Games end, half the village will be removed and the rest expanded into a new suburb called Newington. A decade ago, developers would have had to pay people to live in houses built on top of this wasteland. Thanks to the Green Games, homes in Newington now go for $300,000 each.
Whoops. Olympic mapmakers forgot to include the Lidcombe Waste Treatment Plant located here. Every year Lidcombe takes in thousands of tons of industrial waste and belches out fumes laced with carcinogens. Outside experts recommended moving the plant away from residential areas and sports facilities, but those hired by Lidcombe worried only that its malodorous exhaust would not be "aesthetically acceptable" to visitors. "[A]ppearance," they noted, "will be particularly important during the Games because there will be an enormous amount of public and media attention." Solution: landscaping to hide the plant from view.
Only promoters call Homebush Bay "the new heart of Sydney." Others call it "the dioxin capital of the world." For years organizers insisted that there were "no established records of dioxin disposal" here, even though the official overseeing the Olympic cleanup had himself once mapped dioxin-contaminated areas at Homebush and recommended that they "not be used for any building developments." When environmentalists obtained his maps and other "established records" in 1997, organizers "unreservedly" apologized. Tests of waste dug up at Newington revealed dioxin levels 1,540 times what the U.S. EPA deems safe.
The name Kronos Hill was meant to lend, one presumes, a poetic whiff of the eternal to this prettified hummock of pestilential sludge, known previously as Bradshaw's Mountain in honor of the waste company that created it. Here, hidden beneath three feet of topsoil and a few eucalyptus trees, lies a sixty-foot-deep landfill so contaminated--with heavy metals, asbestos, lead, hydrocarbons, pesticides, and dioxin--that before it was capped in 1995 workers were required to wear respirators and plastic suits just to get within thirty feet of it. Far more expedient and inexpensive than waste-treatment methods (which can break down certain toxic substances) or sealed "bank-vault" fills (which are designed to keep waste contained), "leaky" fills like Kronos "remediate" toxins--as well as the legal liabilities of landowners--by letting them slowly leach away. Drains collect some of the poisonous runoff. The rest seeps into the groundwater.
Platypuses like Syd are river-dwelling creatures, but you won't find any swimming or fishing in Haslam's Creek. Three years ago, barrels of dioxin were found buried in the creek's bank, just yards from the Olympic Village. Homebush Bay, into which the creek flows, is one of the most polluted waterways in the world. A 1992 government investigation of the bay was kept confidential, a leaked memo revealed, for fear "that any action on the matter may jeopardise the Olympic bid." Only in 1997, after Greenpeace excavated 69 drums of dioxin at an abandoned Union Carbide factory across from the Olympic Park, did officials promise $17 million to dredge 33,000 tons of dioxin-contaminated sediment from the bay's floor--regarded by most experts as too little and too late. The cleanup has yet to begin.
Toxic waste also buried here, here, here, here, and here.
Pick up a copy of this map and other complimentary forms of disinformation at the Homebush Bay Visitors Centre. Handsomely illustrated brochures and helpful information officers will describe the environmental practices used to clean up the site as the "world's best," but they won't tell you about the elevated levels of contaminants in the groundwater. They'll brag about the several hundred tons of waste treated with state-of-the-art methods but try to excuse the several million tons buried in leaky fills. They'll tell you that Homebush has been made safe but neglect to mention that in nearby neighborhoods mortality rates for cancer are 8.5 percent higher, and those for respiratory disease 25 percent higher, than in the rest of Sydney. They'll tell you that eco-celebrity Olivia Newton John endorsed the Games, but not that organizers circumvented public disclosure laws. The "world's best" practices were used here: the world's best P.R. practices. Sydney's organizers all deserve gold medals in that most competitive Olympic event of all--marketing.