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"Greenest Games Ever"

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January 27, 2010

"Greenest Games Ever"

What environmental legacy will the Olympics leave for British Columbians?

by Pina Belperio

Residents are worried about the environmental impacts of Olympic site developments in Whistler, BC. Photo: Pina Belperio

WHISTLER—With the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games less than three weeks away, concerns are growing around the long-term effects of this three-week event on Whistler’s prized natural environment.

While Vancouver’s Olympic venues were constructed in urban areas, Whistler’s were built far from public view in remote and less disturbed areas.

As the official mountain host, Whistler wants to show the world that it can hold a world-class event with minimal impact on the environment and make these the “greenest games ever.” It has been more of a challenge than expected.

Clear-cutting makes room for the Olympics Medal Plaza in Whistler, BC. Photo: Pina Belperio

Completion of the $119.7 million Whistler Olympic Park in the Callaghan Valley came with a hefty environmental price. Between 89,000 and 120,000 old-growth trees were removed to build the "Olympic legacy" trails and ski jumps. The site contains 55 kilometres of public Nordic trails, three stadiums, two ski jumps and a Nordic day

The venues are designed to meet Canadian Green Building LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Silver designation. Waste wood was chipped and composted and diverted from the local landfill.

According to Ann Duffy, VANOC’s Corporate Sustainability Officer, “We took conversations with stakeholders and turned them into actions. We shrunk the Nordic venues by 30 per cent and built them on a more compact, geographical area, so fewer trees were cut.”

Local environmental groups claim VANOC failed to listen to their concerns, pointing to ski trails fast-tracked from the original designs and cut without buffers around watersheds or sensitive wetlands.

Whistler’s environmental organization AWARE (Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment) intended to work with VANOC to minimize the Games’ impacts on the environment.

“VANOC said they would look into the width and extent of the legacy trails, but nothing changed,” said Sara Jennings, AWARE president. “We got the feeling VANOC was only interested in checking us off the stakeholder list as having been consulted.”

AWARE was concerned about the "lack of studies done on the impact of the legacy trails on grizzly bear habitat,” said Jennings.

To date, VANOC has refused to study this, despite the BC Ministry of the Environment designating the area a grizzly bear rehabilitation area.

As a stakeholder in the Sea-to-Sky Land Resource Management Plan (LRMP), AWARE wanted to designate a large tract of land for the Games and call it the Olympic Wildlife Refuge. VANOC told them the name “Olympic” couldn’t be used. In the end, the land was
protected, but without Olympic association.

Over 800 trees were removed from the four-acre forest in Whistler village in spring 2008 to build the $13.67 million Whistler Medals Plaza. Although the resort already has five plazas for outdoor gatherings, Whistler’s municipal officials decided to build another.

Last summer, this rare, red-listed wetland north of Whistler Village was cleared virtually overnight by BC Transit for the new Whistler Transit Facility and a refueling depot for the experimental Hydrogen Highway.

The wetland, owned by BC Hydro, has no record of receiving a federal or provincial environmental impact assessment, and was cleared with wider than normal buffers to accommodate large compressed hydrogen storage tanks. Prior to the Games, Whistler had lost 72 per cent of its wetland. With the destruction of this sensitive site, it has lost even more.

The $104.9 million luge, bobsleigh and skeleton venue on Blackcomb Mountain has received the popular label of Whistler's “white elephant” from journalists and activists. VANOC used sustainable environmental design principles for the site access, energy use and construction materials. The waste heat from the refrigeration system will be reused to heat the refrigeration plant building and guest services building.

However, the “fridge in the sky” requires the same amount of energy to operate as Whistler and Blackcomb’s Mountain facilities combined, and stores 68,000 kilograms of ammonia. Any leaks would be detrimental to
nearby residents and wildlife.

VANOC was credited for re-aligning the Women’s Downhill course to minimize the impact on red-tailed frogs, but the realignment went beyond what some biologists considered "safe." Environmental groups believe that the new course will cause sediment build-up in nearby creeks.

Thousands of trees were lost and sensitive ecosystems compromised to build the new $650 million highway to Whistler. Vulnerable areas like Eagle Ridge Bluffs were bulldozed to make an overland route instead of a tunnel.

On all accounts, the Whistler Athletes' Village is a success story. It’s one of only 20 Canadian developments designated as LEED-ND (Neighbourhood Development). It received the 2008 Energy Action Award for “its compact, low-carbon, resident-restricted housing with its innovative, alternative energy heating system.”

“The two Athlete Villages use 50 per cent less water and energy than previous venues,” said Duffy.

While VANOC touts successes such as the Sustainability Star Program and Project Blue Sky, which encourages people to take on climate change through athletic action, many residents believe the IOC continues to destroy the global environment for corporate gain.

“There’s nothing innovative about clearing every tree in sight or destroying wetlands and grizzly bear habitats. Recycling, composting or building to LEED standards is not innovative—but following the norm,” said Jennings. “Where are the solar panels, the composting toilets, electric cars and green jobs that can be showcased to the

When guests go home after March 2010 and the party dies down, Whistler residents will be able to assess just how “green” the Games really were.

Pina Belperio is a writer, politico and community activist who reports on Olympic-related issues in her hometown of Whistler, BC.

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