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Greenest Games Ever? Not!

It will cost nearly $2 billion to stage the Salt Lake City Olympics--almost $800,000 per athlete--with U.S. taxpayers picking up about a quarter of the tab. Partly due to increased security, the Utah Games, which start on Feb. 8 and continue for 17 days, will be the most expensive Winter Olympics ever. “These are not wasted funds,” says International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge. Such an investment, he says, leaves a “great legacy” to Olympic cities.

But in Salt Lake City, the Games will leave another legacy as well: profound ecological consequences. Following the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the IOC adopted an ambitious set of guidelines emphasizing environmental protection, sustainable development, and a “proactive” and “dynamic approach” to achieve green goals. The environment was touted as one of three pillars of the Olympics, along with sports and culture, and cities bidding for the Games had to trot out their green credentials.

But such considerations have since been largely abandoned in Salt Lake City, and in the end, the region will likely be left with significant environmental damage from the Games. “The only thing green about these Games,” says Alexis Kelner, co-founder of the Utah environmental group Save Our Canyons, “is the color of the currency being thrown around.”

That money is going everywhere except to environmental protection. In the beginning, some $6 million was budgeted by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) to address environmental concerns. In February 1999, that sum was reduced to $1.5 million, or just one-tenth of 1% of the 2002 Olympic budget.

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With meager resources at her disposal, Diane Conrad Gleason, director of environmental programs for the SLOC, has focused on educational projects, including a children’s video with television’s “Bill Nye, the Science Guy.” Seminars on green themes have encouraged Salt Lake hotel and restaurant managers to implement water and energy conservation techniques. Gleason also has promoted an international tree-planting campaign. And she’s continued to mouth the requisite incantations about hosting “the greenest Games ever.”

But educational initiatives and public relations cannot mitigate the negative impact of major construction projects like the ski jumps at Utah Winter Sports Park, which have left a large, ugly gash on the mountainside. Even Mitt Romney, president and CEO of the SLOC, concedes that was a mistake. “It happened before I came on board,” he said. Nor could it prevent billionaire oilman Earl Holding, at the time a member of the SLOC, from pulling off what many activists see as the biggest environmental scandal of the Games.

Using his considerable political connections, Holding arranged a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service to acquire 1,377 acres at the base of his Snowbasin ski resort, with carte blanche approval from Congress to develop the land. Congress also pitched in a $15-million subsidy for an access road to Holding’s resort.

Pristine mountain wilderness soon morphed into condos, restaurants and ski runs. Parking lots encroached on riverbed areas, degrading trout habitat and discharging waste runoff into the watershed. As approved by Congress, these developments were exempt from the usual public review required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The waiver was justified, according to Republican Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, to facilitate the staging of the Winter Olympics. But critics contend that the public was hoodwinked. “No land swap or other similar venture was necessary to stage the Games,” says Howard Peterson, a member of the U.S. Olympic Organizing Committee’s site-selection team that evaluated Snowbasin as a venue for ski-race competitions.

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Trying to make the best of a bad situation, the Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC), a volunteer group established by the SLOC, worked with environmental groups and government officials to choose a road pathway to Snowbasin that would have the least impact on wetlands, streams, and hawk and owl habitats. The EAC also lobbied to protect vulnerable canyons in the Wasatch Mountains.

But the EAC wielded no real authority, and several members, including Ivan Weber, head of Utah’s Sierra Club chapter, quit the group after concluding that ecological concerns were a low priority for the Olympics committee. “When environmentalists would bring up an issue,” Weber explained, “SLOC would say, ‘It’s too early to do anything,’ and then at some point later would say, ‘It would have been nice, but it’s too late now.”

The Snowbasin parking lots strike another environmental nerve as well. When Salt Lake was vying to host the Winter Games, bid officials promised that attendees at the 2002 Olympics would be able to ride public transportation to events. But the SLOC later reneged on this pledge and adopted a transportation plan that relies heavily on private automobiles. Thirty-five million dollars were allocated to build new parking lots and expand old ones in order to accommodate a huge influx of traffic. The SLOC acquired a borrowed fleet of 4,000 gas-guzzling SUVs, which are exempt from U.S. clean air standards, and vans to ferry athletes and others between event venues and the Olympic Village, a 60-square-mile area. Chemical salts that pollute the watershed will be used to clear the snow and keep the roads open 24 hours a day. And air quality will suffer because of all the vehicular exhaust, which creates a sickly, yellow haze during winter temperature inversions in Salt Lake.

But the SLOC’s chief environmental officer sees a silver lining in the smog: emissions credits. Various companies in Utah and other states pollute less than they are allowed, Gleason says, and some have donated their unused pollution credits to the Olympics. These donations, she says, will offset any emissions increases related to the 2002 Games, resulting in “the first Olympics with net-zero emissions.”

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Many critics scoff at the notion of trading emissions, as nothing can change the fact that more emissions will be discharged into the air because of the Olympics than otherwise would have been. “It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors and bad arithmetic,” says a Utah state environmental official.

Recycling is also cited by Olympic officials as an environmental triumph for the Games. Strong objections from the GrassRoots Recycling Network and other national green organizations prompted Olympic organizers to improve plans to achieve “zero waste” through recycling and composting. Coca-Cola Co., a leading Olympic sponsor, contributed extra funds for an advanced, two-bin recycling system that could conceivably eliminate 90% of the waste generated by the Winter Games.

But critics consider this insufficient. “The Olympics should not only avoid being environmentally destructive, it should also be a showcase for sustainable development,” says Peter Berg, director of the San Francisco-based Planet Drum Foundation and co-founder of Guard Fox Watch, an international project that monitors ecological issues related to the Olympic Games. Two years ago, Berg and Japanese ecologist Kimiharo To met with Salt Lake Olympic officials and urged them to feature an array of green alternatives, including state-of-the-art solar panels, compost toilets and dual-use plumbing systems for recycling “gray water” in athlete’s quarters. “It would have set a precedent,” Berg noted. “It would have been a model for future Olympics and other outdoor sports spectacles.”

But no money was available to demonstrate these new technologies. “What a shame,” says Ivan Weber of the Sierra Club. “A crucial opportunity to raise awareness was squandered.” Part of the problem, according to Weber, stems from the itinerant ethos of Olympic professionals “who travel like a circus crew, staging event after event with little or no concern for community or local environment.”

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When the 2002 Games are over, Olympic officials will leave behind a skeletal staff, while others move on to the next show. And the true cost of hosting the Salt Lake Olympics won’t be clear until much later.

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Martin A. Lee is the author of “Acid Dreams” and “The Beast Reawakens.”


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