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The 'greenest games ever' lack an environmental legacy

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Last weekend (Jan. 31), I was invited to speak at SOC 2010 (Students Olympic Conference) held at UBC. The goal was to explore how leading experts on the 2010 Games think Vancouver and Whistler will be impacted.

Organizers had invited 28 VANOC staff, but not one them showed up, leaving the Olympic dissidents to congregate together. VANOC "no-show" leads me to believe that this was a policy decision.

"On Police, Sustainability and Other Priority Olympic Issues"
Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun Jan. 31, 2009

I was surprised that I was the only speaker from the other host town, Whistler. When the bid was first announced, it was the Vancouver-Whistler Bid, and proponents touted Whistler's venues, mountains and pristine wilderness. However, soon after the 2010 bid was announced, Whistler's name was quickly dropped since the IOC does not allow two city names to be used.

I spoke on the Environment Impacts of the Games with documentary filmmaker, Conrad Schmidt who produced the film, The Five Ring Circus and Vancouver councilor, Susan Anton.

While Vancouver's elected officials are boasting how green and livable Vancouver is by flagging venues such as the Richmond Oval and Athletes Village on False Creek, very few people are aware of the environmental destruction in Whistler. I can't help thinking that we received the short end of the environment pillar.

Since photos speak a thousand words, I decided to take the conference participants through a journey of Whistler's Olympic venues.

The pristine Callaghan Valley is home to the Whistler Olympic Park and host of the Nordic, ski jumping and biathlon events.

While this area is undoubtedly one of most scenic on earth, the completion of this venue has come with a hefty price. Between 89,000 and 120,000 old-growth trees have been cleared to build the legacy trails and ski jumps. Trails were cut without any buffers around watersheds and sensitive wetlands. The trails' have also led to increased traffic into the backcountry by snowmobilers and motorized vehicles.

Despite biological studies, VANOC has refused to create to a Grizzly Bear Legacy as part of the games long-term legacy. The newly cleared trails will have serious impacts on the Grizzly Bears' movement and rehabilitation.

Instead of using compostable toilets in the Callaghan Valley, VANOC opted for a fully functioning sewage treatment plant instead, so that the area can be opened for development and golf courses post-2010.

The red-listed Nesters Wetlands has not fared any better. Last summer, BC Transit cleared the entire area to house Whistler's new transit facility and fueling station for the Hydrogen Highway. I find this extremely ironic. "Let's destroy a rare wetland that contains otters, fish, birds, etc. and let's replace it with a volatile and unproven energy alternative, so we can call these the Greenest Games Ever."

It has long been the dream of BC's premier to showcase the "experimental" Hydrogen buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells during the 2010 Games.

Despite opposition and protests from the community over the loss of this wetland, the once-diverse wetland is now a fenced-off mud pit. To date, BC Transit has not yet released final costs or timelines for this transit project. Rumours have been swirling around town that the hydrogen buses are no longer a reality. Good waste of a wetland.

Last week, we learned that Nesters Wetlands will be used by the Canadian Army to house 400 soldiers during the Games.

The same poor planning applies to Lot 1/9 (a.k.a 2010 Celebration Plaza). This four-acre old growth forest in the centre of Whistler Village was cleared last April to make room for the "temporary" medals ceremony. After a great deal of controversy, 800 trees cleared and a waste of taxpayer money, the lot sits like empty with a yellow fence erected around it.

A few weeks ago, VANOC announced that due to budgetary cuts, the Celebration Plaza would no longer be used for the medals ceremony. When the Games were first announced, Whistler had been promised a legacy that included a hockey arena or outdoor skating rink. Looks like we got a 4x4 monster truck mud pit instead.

The "white elephant" award belongs to the Whistler Sliding Centre. I am surprised that there hasn't been more discussion around this massive infrastructure built for the bobsled, luge and skeleton. The Whistler Sliding Centre uses the same amount of energy as both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains combined!

In the days of peak oil, climate change and economic downturn, how can we justify venues like the ski jumping and sliding centre when they benefit a handful of elite athletes? If Beijing could host the equestrian events in Hong King during the Beijing 2008 Olympics, there's no reason that Whistler couldn't host the sliding events in Calgary.

Why didn't VANOC learn from the Torino Games? The Cesana Pariol Bobsled venue was the site of the bobsled events during the 2006 Games. TOROC tried its best to mitigate its environmental impact, but the fact remains that constructing, operating and maintaining what is effectively a huge "fridge in the mountains" raises many fundamental questions of sustainability.

The organizing committee has estimated that the track and equipment used to stage the luge and skeleton events, cost around 70 million Euros to build. Recently residents have noticed ammonia leaking out from the extensive piping with 19 bends through the mountainside. The freezing system uses 48 tonnes of ammonia and the centre requires over $1.1 million USD to operate every year, which may be far more than the income generated by visitors.

Concerns have been virtually absent in Whistler, especially as we get ready to host the FIBT Luge Word Cups in Whistler from Feb. 5 to 7. I'm sure the novelty will run out once the public learns how much money is required to keep the lights on.

Many at the SOC conference agreed that the IOC should not be building a full complement of venues for every single Olympics. Rather, these facilities should be built in one city per country (or continent.) I opt for Calgary.


VANOC claims it's adhering to sustainability principles because it has implemented recycling and composting, and has used LEED principles in the construction of new buildings. However, they seem to miss the small things. Every time I have visited the Ski Jump facility or the Whistler Sliding Centre, the lights are always on - even during the day.

Vanoc could have built cheap composting toilets, instead they paid for a fully functional wastewater treatment centre built by EPCOR (an Olympic sponsor) so that the Callaghan Valley can be developed into a Whistler-like resort community post-2010. The C.K. Choi building at UBC was built 10 years ago with compostable toilets. Surely VANOC could match 10-year old technology.

Although VANOC is using geothermal heating to power both of the Athletes Villages, Vancouver shops like Capers and Coast Mountain Sportshave been using geothermal heating for the past 15 years.

There appears to be a lack of innovation from an organization that claims to be hosting the "greenest games ever? Where are the solar panels, peel and stick solar roofing components, micro-hydro power at the Callaghan, and passive heat buildings? It's clear that Whistler will not have a long-lasting environmental legacy after the "greenest Games Ever" leave town.

It's time that we stop thinking of everything in economic terms, but in environmental terms. Some things are too valuable to put a price on.

The SOC Conference at UBC was a great way to start the discussion on critical issues around civil liberties, homelessness, Indigenous rights and the environment.

Next time around, I hope VANOC has the time or inclination to show up and defend its decisions.

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