Atlanta Games: What's the Environmental Score?

Despite some highly visible efforts, the conservation record has been mixed

As departing athletes pack up their treasures of gold, environmentalists wonder whether the Centennial Games will go down in history as successfully in "green."

Environmental concerns are now an integral part of Olympic planning. Changes made to the Olympic Charter in 1991 mandated that all cities vying to host the Games, starting with the venue for the year 2000, must submit an environmental plan.

Atlanta voluntarily embraced the idea for the 1996 Games, and created its own plan to minimize the solid waste, energy consumption, and air pollution generated from its more than two million visitors. Billy Payne, president and CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), originally envisioned the Games as an opportunity to "send a dramatic environmental message around the world."

But despite some highly visible efforts to carry out elements of the plan, conservationists and other observers say the environmental record has been mixed, with some programs successful and others badly organized.

Olympic and city officials, like Mr. Payne, see the overall effort as successful. He and others point to the new 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park - the largest urban park developed in the US in 30 years - as well as the newly built energy-saving Aquatic Center, a gas-saving transportation system, and smaller efforts such as a community tree-planting program.

Solar energy used

The $21 million Aquatic Center - built in partnership with the US Department of Energy, Georgia Tech, and Georgia Power - is an energy-saving showcase. The open-air facility has the world's largest solar roof-top energy system to generate electricity and keep the pool water at a constant 78 degrees F. The solar system saves close to $30,000 a year in operating costs.

ACOG's most significant accomplishment, according to Carolyn Boyd Hatcher, president of the Georgia Conservancy - who has been concerned about Atlanta's air quality - was the 500 to 600 alternative-fuel vehicles that transported spectators and athletes to and from venues.

This fleet - the largest ever assembled for a sporting event - was made up of vans, buses, open-air shuttle buses, and pickups mostly on loan from transit systems around the country and from corporate sponsors.

"A lot more could have been done in several areas," Ms. Hatcher acknowledges. "But given the time and budgetary constraints, we're proud of what has been done in site selection and in promoting the use of public transportation and alternative-fuel vehicles."

Meeting with local conservation groups regarding site selection did help to preserve wildlife. Though the organizing committee was reluctant at first, it agreed to move the Olympic sailing venue site to preserve the habitat of the wood stork, an endangered species. The committee also moved the rowing canoeing venue twice because the original sites were located too close to reservoirs.

Despite these successful efforts, some environmentalists have been frustrated. Compared to a very active conservation effort during the 1994 Lillehammer Games in Norway, many feel ACOG was not receptive enough to grass-roots groups or professionals. They are concerned that the new $55 million Centennial Park will quickly become a gathering place for the homeless. They note other problems including a haphazard, last-minute recycling program.

"Environmental issues were not a priority with ACOG. They focused on promoting the Centennial theme and raising money from the very beginning," says Glenn Carroll, past president of the Georgia Environmental Council.

Overt commercialism

Indeed, the most resounding message of the $1.7 billion Games for many environmentalists comes from sidewalk vendors hawking Olympic souvenirs and corporate sponsors hustling their products.

In addition to the overt commercialism, a recycling program - which was slated to be the centerpiece of ACOG's environmental plan - was flawed.

With a system of color bins, ACOG planned to divert from the landfills 85 percent of the estimated 9,000 tons of plastic bottles, cans, crumbled brochures, and half-eaten hot dogs cast aside by visitors. And though the bins were in place at the venues and Olympic sites, the local zoning permits were not obtained by the Massachusetts-based sorting facility until a week after opening ceremonies. The facility is now in full operation but many feel there is little hope of meeting the original goal.

Local groups were also concerned about Atlanta's antiquated water system and the impact of Olympic-related construction in the Atlanta University complex, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. "Rocks and debris from construction sites damaged storm drains and allowed untreated wastewater to flow into the Cattahoochee River," says Vivian Steadman, a member of the mayor's environmental task force and Save Atlanta's Fragile Environment.

Amid these problems are local success stories, such as a program to reuse opening ceremony costumes. While most of the 5,000 plus cast members in the lavish ceremony kept their costumes, 160 members of the 300-strong Centennial Choir are donating their robes to Southern churches destroyed by arson. The robes will be shipped to congregations in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Smaller groups rallied to promote alternative vehicles to reduce air pollutants. The Atlanta Bicycle Campaign and PATH, two nonprofit organizations working with city government, set up 40 miles of bike trails that cut through the Olympic Ring. The trails, which connect many of the city's parks, will be used by commuters and bikers long after closing ceremonies.

Trees Atlanta, another nonprofit group, raised $4.5 million for planting 30,000 trees to improve air quality and provide much-needed shade. Community organizations, government agencies, schools, and volunteers from around the metro area participated in the "green-up" campaign.

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