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London 2012: Legacy or Liability?

By Paul Charman and Mike Wells

After spending hundreds of millions of tax payers’ money on a high profile ‘clean-up’, it has become clear that the 2012 Olympic Park actually remains classified as a contaminated brownfield site.

Documents show that the whole area is to have as little as 2 feet (60cm) of “clean” material placed on top of a warning marker layer of orange plastic fabric sheeting, of a type called Terram 1000,  covering almost all the Park site. Photographs of the layer being installed can be viewed on the ODA's planning website here , here, and here .

While selected areas below this level have been treated, the land comes with no guarantees if disturbed as part of future development.  Anything which involves digging into this separation layer will require special procedures to be followed, including protective measures for workers.   Future contractors are warned that excavated material is to be considered contaminated unless proved otherwise.

This warning is well founded given that carcinogenic asbestos-laden material has been left in place in many areas, the levels being so high that the soil would be classified as Hazardous Waste if excavated during future construction activities. The asbestos limit for ‘fill’ material being used in site preparation is right on the borderline of being Hazardous Waste at 0.1% – 20 times higher than the ‘clean’ material being used at the surface. Even the material at the surface has been permitted to contain levels of asbestos 5 times higher than the 0.001% level widely accepted as giving rise to hazard if blown into the air and inhaled.

Radioactive contamination of unknown extent has been left in place next to the Main Stadium, as well as in the remainder of the old West Ham Tip in the area around the Velodrome and adjacent to the Olympic Village.

A report on preparations for the Velodrome confirms ‘significant residual risks’ of the presence of radiological material during construction, maintenance and decommissioning, as well as other ground contaminants:


Saving on landfill charges by retaining or reusing contaminated material has led to potentially serious incidents. Near the Velodrome crushed masonry was used as a road surface, but was later found to contain over 4 times the legal limit of asbestos and subsequently required controlled removal.

View of some of the mountains of material excavated for landscaping on the London Olympic ParkView of some of the mountains of material excavated for landscaping on the London Olympic Park

An ODA spokesperson said: “The ODA is on track to deliver the cleaning and clearing of the Olympic Park on time and well within the £364 million originally allocated in the ODA budget for Enabling Works. The London Development Agency has contributed additional funding to the site demolition and clean-up, which includes the remediation of contaminated soil. The ODA is currently anticipating delivering over £20 million of cost savings in its Enabling Works budget.”

Huge quantities of excavated material dominating the skyline on the London Olympic ParkHuge quanititis of excavated material dominating the skyline on the London Olympic Park


But the fact that the Olympic Park remains a potentially hazardous brownfield site not only brings into question the value for money of the remediation, it also has consequences for the legacy use of the land.  While the London Development Agency LDA hopes to recoup money by a post-Olympics sale of land, any use of the land will need careful monitoring. An ODA document warns that “Future use of the site should not include the construction of private gardens or the growing of edible crops”, in  contrast to the claims of green, sustainable legacy communities in their publicity.

The mysterious resignation of Jack Lemley (first Olympic boss) was attributed in part to his concerns over contamination of the Olympic Site, and the government’s failure to listen to bad news.   His concerns now appear well founded.

As the attempted remediation of Corby steelworks and the ongoing controversy of the asbestos contaminated Spodden Valley have shown, attempts to intensively redevelop sites regardless of their condition is risky unless very carefully managed. In the case of the Olympic Park there are the factors of an immovable timetable and ambitious landscaping involving the disturbance of millions of tons of soil containing a whole range of contaminants, and there is evidence these are taking priority over safety.


Messed up by the clean-up - on the previously stable and remediated West Ham tip, Manor Garden Allotments, Eastway Cycle Circuit and Clays Lane Estate.

Julian Cheyne, a resident who was evicted from his home to make way for the athletes’ village, comments:  “We lived at Clays Lane for twenty-five years. Nobody showed any concern for us or told us the site was dangerous.  Then the Olympics came along and we were told how the site had to be cleaned up for the athletes. It was described as 'high risk of finding contaminants dangerous to human health'.  They dug up the site increasing the dangers by creating all that dust.  Now we find the site will still be dangerous! What a waste!”

Excavations and movement of excavated material from around the Olympic site may have made the pollution problem worse by bringing toxins closer to the surface.  For example the historic West Ham Tip had previously been covered with a substantial protective layer of over 2 meters of clean soil, now stripped away. 

View of the Westham Tip before Olympic Earthworks.  It had been capped with 6 feet of clean material.View of the Westham Tip before Olympic Earthworks. It had been capped with 6 feet of clean material.


Julie Sumner, evicted from her allotment to make way for an Olympic footpath, on the grounds that the land under her allotment had to be de-contaminated said  “I am incredulous that false premises were used to justify our eviction and the subsequent destruction of the plots. Our land had been correctly treated with a chalk cap around three metres down giving plenty of good clean topsoil, which gardeners safely cultivated for almost 100 years.  I find it hard to believe the turmoil of major construction work will not release many otherwise contained toxins mixing them into the soil, air and river.”

Though there was compelling evidence to suggest the site was radioactively contaminated before work started, the authorities appear not to have taken the problem seriously until contamination was found in material which had already been excavated and moved.  By that time the project was well advanced and the possibility of changing approach was probably impossible due to the Olympic deadline.

Today, as the clean-up draws to a close, documents show that more than 7,000 tonnes of radioactive waste has been wrapped in plastic and buried under a pedestrian walkway, while unknown quantities of radioactive and other contaminants have been left in the ground.

Because the site remains officially contaminated, and as it is now known to contain not only radioactive waste, but a variety of toxins, land in the Olympic Park may prove an unattractive liability to developers.  It is clearly far from demonstrating exemplary standards of remediation. Consequently Olympic landowners, who include the Lee Valley Park Authority and the LDA, could be liable for another costly and disruptive post-Olympic clean-up.

©Paul Charman/Mike Wells


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