Greenwashing an Olympic-sized toxic dump

December 1, 1999

By Dr Sharon Beder

When the Olympic Games begin in the year 2000, you can expect to see them hyped as the "greenest" summer Olympics of all time. But a massive toxic waste dump will lie underneath the fine landscaping of the Olympic site. It will be covered by a metre of dirt and a mountain of public relations.

Homebush Bay in Sydney is a former industrial site and armaments depot subjected to years of unregulated waste dumping. In recent years, asbestos-contaminated waste and chemicals including dioxins and pesticides have been found there, along with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc.

It is the worst toxic waste dump in Australia, and the bay into which the waste leaches is so contaminated that there is a fishing ban. The sediments in the bay have concentrations of dioxin that make it one of the world's worst dioxin hot spots. The dioxin is largely the result of waste from a Union Carbide factory which manufactured the notorious herbicide Agent Orange there during the Vietnam War.

This massive toxic waste site has been transformed into a "green showcase" thanks, in large part, to the endorsement of Greenpeace and other key environmentalists.

Bashing Beijing

Part of the story of Sydney's public relations campaign to win the 2000 Olympics came to light through investigations into the scandal over Salt Lake City's bribery of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is responsible for selecting between competing cities' bids. In a major report in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), Gerard Ryle and Gary Hughes revealed a plan by key Australian businesspeople and government officials to discredit a bid by Beijing, which was then thought to be the front-runner.

Sydney's secret PR strategy was developed by representatives of industries which stood to benefit financially if the Olympics bid succeeded. They included the managing director of Lend Lease (one of Australia's largest construction companies), the managing director of Optus, and a corporate lawyer and close adviser to media mogul Kerry Packer.

In December 1992, these individuals met with the NSW premier, John Fahey, to discuss how China's human rights record could be used to damage its bid, and also how to deflect expected criticism of Sydney's bid from the media, Aborigines, environmentalists and trade unionists. The group agreed to hire a public relations strategist to help them.

An unofficial committee, named after businessman Ross Turnbull, who had organised the meeting, continued to steer the bid from behind the scenes. Three international members were added to the committee, including James Wolfensohn, the Australian-born president of the World Bank. The "Beijing strategy" was put together by the Turnbull committee with the help of Gabrielle Melville, a former BHP public relations strategist, and Sir Tim Bell, former head of Saatchi and Saatchi advertising company in Australia and adviser to Margaret Thatcher (which earned him the knighthood).

The Beijing strategy involved covertly funding a human rights group to campaign against China's human rights abuses in the lead up to the games decision. The campaign was to be based in Europe or the United States to divert suspicion from Australia.

A book was to be published on the same topic, and "an eminent international identity" would be paid to have his name on the book. A story would also be "planted" in the London Times newspaper.

Sydney games officials claim that this plan was never implemented, but in the months leading up to the bid decision in 1993 there was a US-based human rights campaign that damaged Beijing's bid.

Selling Sydney

A veil of secrecy was wrapped around the strategising for the Sydney bid by establishing a private company called Sydney Olympics 2000 Bid Limited (SOBL) to oversee the bidding process. As a private company, SOBL was exempt from Freedom of Information requests, thus protecting it from having to disclose its internal reports and documents. SOBL's articles of association ensured that information was tightly controlled.

Secrecy was further enhanced through various arrangements with the media. A Communications Commission was formed to be in charge of PR strategies, chaired by the managing director of the Clemengers advertising agency. Other members of the commission included the national director of advertising for Australian Consolidated Press, the media director of the premier's office and the general manager of marketing for the Ampol oil company.

A remarkable admission of the media's complicity in the bidding process came in February 1999 from Bruce Baird, a former NSW government minister responsible for the bidding process. Baird claimed that he had obtained the agreement of three major media executives not to run stories about the wining, dining and other blandishments offered to IOC officials.

The three executives named by Baird were Kerry Packer (owner of Consolidated Press Holdings), Ken Cowley (chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd) and John Alexander (then editor-in-chief of the SMH). All three have vehemently denied Baird's claims, describing them as "absolute bullshit" and "rubbish", and Baird has subsequently recanted.

What is known, however, is that Packer, Cowley and Alexander all accepted invitations to sit on the SOBL committee. All of the Australian commercial television channels, the three main media companies and a number of radio stations were involved in supporting the bid, either through being on bid committees or through direct sponsorship of the bid. While the bidding was under way, SMH journalist Mark Coultan stated, "Journalists who write stories which might be seen as critical are reminded of their bosses' support and told that their stories would be used against Sydney by other cities".

The SMH also editorialised in support of the Sydney bid and SOBL financed the fare of a SMH journalist to Monaco to report on the bid deliberations. Another SMH journalist, Sam North, was assigned to report on the Olympics and wrote a succession of favourable stories, several of which appeared in advertising supplements funded by Olympic sponsors. News Ltd's Telegraph Mirror also gave unwavering good PR to the bid.

Greenpeace buys in

As the bidding and selection process got under way, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made it clear that it wanted to have a "green" Olympics. IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch said the IOC's primary concern would be to ensure the environment is respected and that this would be taken into account in the final vote on site selection. For Australia, therefore, it was critical to present itself as "green", despite the toxic waste buried at Homebush Bay.

The cooption of Greenpeace Australia was a key factor in the success of this campaign. Greenpeace has campaigned against hazardous landfill dumps for many years, so its support for the Homebush Bay site helped reassure a public that might otherwise be concerned about the site's toxic history.

To win over Greenpeace, SOBL invited them to draw up environmental guidelines for construction and operation of the Olympic facilities. The proposed design of the Athletes' Village was developed by a consortium of architects including a firm commissioned by Greenpeace Australia.

On paper, the design looked impressive. It provided for 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 20 years, the "new Greenpeace" would be seen as promoting solutions.

Greenpeace involvement in the Sydney bid soon went beyond simply offering ideas, as it became a vocal supporter. Karla Bell, Greenpeace Australia's cities and coasts campaigner, 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 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, then head 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.

SOBL hired Bell and Kate Short (now Kate Hughes) of Sydney's Total Environment Centre (TEC) to draw up environmental guidelines for the games.

Short had a long history of campaigning on toxic issues, particularly pesticides. The guidelines drawn up by Bell and Short advocated the use of recyclable and recycled building materials, the use of plantation timber as opposed to forest timber and tickets printed on "recycled post consumer waste paper". 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 [NSW] 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 the Australian Conservation Foundation, the NSW Nature Conservation Council and the TEC. Although individuals affiliated with those organisations had joined the bid committee's environmental task force, the groups themselves emphatically denied their support and 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 cooption of key environmentalists who reassured others that the site was being cleaned up properly.

In private communications during the bidding process, Greenpeace Australia toxics campaigner Robert Cartmel told me, "There is every likelihood that the remediation measures being undertaken at Homebush Bay won't measure up". He warned, "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 criticise Greenpeace's involvement in the Olympics bidding process.

This brochure, published by the Australian Olympic bidders, highlighted the bid's endorsement from Greenpeace.

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. 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 the environment and sport, also put out a news release arguing, "A vote by the international community for Sydney will be a vote for the environment".

From rhetoric to reality

Once the bid was won, however, the government's lack of 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 envisioned a centre made of recycled materials with natural ventilation.

In 1994, Gilding resigned as head of Greenpeace International and went into business as an environmental consultant. One of his clients was Lend Lease/Mirvac. 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 more than half the houses were temporary structures, designed to be taken down later. Worse yet, from the perspective of Greenpeace, 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 "minimising and ideally avoiding the use of chlorine-based products (organochlorines) such as PCB, PVC and chlorinated bleached paper". The Olympic Coordination Authority's (OAC) decision to abandon this commitment came in the wake of a deliberate PR campaign by the plastics and chemical industry.

In 1995, the SMH's Andrew Byrne revealed how Australia's Plastics and Chemical Industries Association was financing a campaign to undermine commitments to a PVC-free games. The 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 to bring 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 the "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 remained untreated beneath.

As evidence of toxic contamination of the site filtered out, environmentalists involved in the bidding began to change their stories. In 1995, a major television current affairs program featured Greenpeace and Short criticising 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 two 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 OCA responded by accusing green groups who highlighted toxic contamination of the games site as doing "damage to Australia".

A number of revelations about dioxin on the Homebush site posed another public relations crisis for the OCA in 1997. Colin Grant, OCA's executive director of planning, environment and policy, publicly stated that the site did not contain any 2,3,7,8 TCDD (the most toxic form of dioxin). After this statement was proven false, the OCA was forced to "unreservedly" apologise for the "mistake".

Damage control

Hired by OCA as an "environmental special adviser", Short organised a series of forums in 1998 titled "Dioxin and Beyond: Enhancing Remediation Strategies at Homebush". In reality, the forums were carefully staged PR events aimed at creating the appearance of public consultation without the openness that true public involvement would require. Attendance was by invitation only and the forums primarily showcased speakers dwelling on good news about the remediation.

Afterwards, in what seemed like an attempt to give the forums a veneer of having been a real consultation, the Australian government announced that a further $11.6 million would be spent for an "Enhanced Remediation Program" which would consist of validation, monitoring and "education and community development" involving school children, but no further treatment of the wastes.

As the pressure has mounted for public disclosure of documents relevant to the Sydney bid, the games promoters have turned again to using the cover of a private company in order to maintain secrecy, claiming that its financial documents belong to internal auditors who are a private firm and therefore exempt from Freedom of Information rules.

Although involvement in the Olympic Games has been an environmental embarrassment, it has also been a goldmine of opportunities for the individuals who supported the Sydney bid. The SMH is now a "team millennium partner" for the games and has established a unit to "maximise the associated commercial opportunities". Both Bell and Gilding have left Greenpeace to become consultants to companies seeking contracts to construct Olympic facilities. They have also participated as paid consultants in preparing Stockholm's bid for the 2004 Olympics.

By contrast, Cartmel, whose misgivings kept him from joining in the campaign to greenwash Homebush Bay, has since been squeezed out of his job.

[Abridged from PR Watch. Sharon Beder is associate professor in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong. She has written several books, including Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, 1997, Scribe Publications. Her web site is at <http://www>.]

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