Science: Playing dirty Games

The Australian organisers of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney pledged several eco-friendly initiatives in clearing the heavily polluted site at Homebush Bay, an industrial graveyard. But many of their promises are just not being kept. Jeremy Cherfas 01934 713602
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The Independent Culture
The Sydney Olympics - billed as the Green Games - open in exactly 64 weeks, on 15 September 2000. In bidding for the Games, the Sydney delegates promised that theirs would be the most environmentally- friendly Games ever. But there are growing doubts that Sydney will deliver on its promises, even though Australia holds a commanding lead in the race to develop key environmentally-friendly technologies.

The biggest single obstacle to the Green Games is the site itself. The land around Homebush Bay, in western Sydney, was an industrial graveyard previously used by chemical giants such as ICI and Union Carbide - infamous for the Bhopal plant leak on 3 December 1984 that poisoned thousands in India.

Their legacy was toxic waste in unmarked sites. The bodies associated with the bid knew about this, and saw the Games as a way to clean up the mess and create a new community. Thus Sydney's bid document featured a glorious artist's impression of a ceremonial entrance on the waterfront, where, beneath fluttering bunting, Olympic athletes and grandees arrive from downtown on eco-friendly water taxis. It was, says Murray Hogarth, environmental correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald, "an absolutely key facet of the bid".

The fate of the entrance is symbolic of the promises Sydney made to the IOC, the International Olympic Committee: it vanished almost as soon as Sydney was awarded the Games in September 1993. The planned entrance turned out to be over one of the most heavily contaminated areas. Just dredging somewhere for the water taxis to tie up would have disturbed the sediment and sent toxic waste out into Sydney Harbour and the Pacific beyond. Fishing is already banned in Homebush Bay because the fish are not fit for human consumption.

Rather than clean up, the organisers re-drew the boundaries so that the grand entrance vanished from the Olympic site. The pollution there was then no longer their responsibility.

That still left plenty of pollution on the official site, and so far almost nothing has been done to remove it. Some low-grade polluted soil has been shifted with bulldozers and dump trucks - to concentrate it in fewer areas - but no other attempt has been made to remove the contaminants.

And yet, just 60 miles due south of Sydney, at the Lucas Heights research laboratories of the CSIRO - the Australian government's Central Science and Research Organisation - there is a working prototype of a device that could have made Homebush Bay spotless. Dr Greg Duffy, group manager for process development in the division of coal and energy technology of CSIRO, developed the system to extract fuel from oil shale back in the 1970s, but it found a new lease of life cleaning spent transformer oil.

Big electrical transformers contain oil as an insulator, but with time the oil oxidises and picks up impurities, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), from the transformer. That makes the oil less effective and the transformer less efficient, but, because PCBs are toxic, disposing of dirty transformer oil is a problem. The oil is also expensive. Duffy's process not only turns PCBs into salt, but also restores the electrical properties of the oil so that it can be recycled. That saves roughly A$73,000 (pounds 31,000) per transformer.

It works by using a catalyst to pull the chlorine molecules off PCBs and attach them to hydrogen, forming hydrochloric acid. This can then be reacted with sodium to make common salt. Three years ago, Duffy built a pilot plant that could process 100 litres of transformer oil a day. He then tested it with a wide range of organochlorines, just the kind of mix that might turn up on a dirty industrial site. "In all cases the process removed them to below the limit of detection," Duffy told me. "It will do the job."

The next stage was a set-up designed to fit on an articulated lorry which could be taken to deal with contamination on site, avoiding the risks of moving toxic waste. Clough Environmental Engineering was ready to commercialise the process, and Mark McNamara, managing director, assured me in March 1998 that he could clean the site in time for the Olympics "if we get the go-ahead". He needed to hear by last June. More than a year later the government has still not agreed anything, the technology languishes at Lucas Heights, and there is no chance of any contamination being dealt with - as opposed to being merely hidden away - before the Olympic opening.

The air-conditioning for the Games is another example of how they are greener on paper than in practice. The Superdome and other venues will use HCFC-123 as a refrigerant, even though it is known to deplete the ozone layer. Michael Bland, Greenpeace Australia's Olympics campaigner, is dismayed.

"Corruption is wrong. Taking drugs in sport is wrong. And breaking the rules is wrong," he says. The problem is, none of the Olympic organisers think they are breaking the rules. Certainly the brief they offered builders says only that the use of CFCs and similar chemicals should be "minimised". But the official Sydney website (at environment.html) says the Games are "committed to... the use of CFC, HFC and HCFC-free refrigerants". So the public is getting one view, builders and architects quite another.

Greenpeace has sued the Olympic Co-ordination Authority (OCA) over its failure to adhere to the guidelines and for misleading the public. Having helped draw up the bid document, Greenpeace is now furious over what's followed. A hearing on the case came to court earlier this week, but that leaves little time to change the specification for the air-conditioning - something the OCA is in any case not inclined to do.

Greenpeace points out that ammonia is already used as a safe and effective refrigerant in large air-conditioning systems around the world. But David Baggs, environmental consultant to the group building the Superdome, counters that HCFC-123 is "significantly more energy efficient". An ammonia system uses more electricity, Baggs says, "so the longer it runs the more greenhouse gases are given off". Greenpeace's expert disagrees. But electricity use wouldn't matter at all if the Olympics had committed itself to the latest green power generation.

A conventional power station uses fossil fuel to boil water, with super- heated steam turning the turbines. At Sydney university Dr David Mills has developed a solar thermal system: sunlight turns water into steam that can be injected into a slightly modified conventional boiler. The secret is a metal coating he developed, which is deposited on the inside of what is effectively a long, thin vacuum flask. The coating is "very black," Mills says. It absorbs all the energy falling on it, radiating almost nothing back. Water - in a steel pipe that runs down the middle of the glass tube - boils, and the steam goes to the boiler.

The engineering is efficient and proven, and the costs very low because the system uses ordinary off-the-peg boilers and turbines. A commercial solar thermal power station could produce 1,440 megawatts, and Mills says it would be efficient from 2MW. It will be up and running by the end of the year 2000, but not at the Games. Mills and his partners tried to interest Sydney Olympics in a system for the main site. But the organisers couldn't commit themselves in time. So although every house in the Olympic village will have photovoltaic panels on the roof, making this the largest solar residential development in the world, it won't save nearly as much fossil fuel as it could.

There are plenty of other examples: water could be recycled to drinking quality, but won't be; sewage could be treated on site, but is simply being piped to the ocean; space cooling is using old-fashioned systems; transport favours cars, with fears that a new rail link might not be able to cope with the expected crowds; even little things like plastic mascots have been made of soft PVC, despite a clear warning from Greenpeace (and commitment from the organising committee) that alternatives should be preferred.

The Olympic organisers say they can't afford to take a gamble on unproven technologies. Everyone else - from the architects whose plans for sustainable housing have been subverted to the campaigners trying to hold the Olympic authorities to their promises - says the organisers are being cheap and short-sighted.

As a result, although the Sydney Games will be greener than any Games so far, they won't be nearly as green as they could be.