Dianne Nielson explains receiving the news of the Olympics: “When Salt Lake City was awarded the bid, we had already been working on an environmental platform for the Olympics. And, Sonja Wallace was involved in that discussion, along with business leaders and individuals from Salt Lake City and the State who had been working on an environmental platform for the Games. As we focused on planning for the Olympics, we realized that it was critical to have a good working relationship for environmental and health issues across federal state and local responsibilities.”
Sonja Wallace, former DEQ Environmental Scientist, worked with the Environmental Public Health Alliance (EPHA) and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) Environment Committee (EC). She recalls her experience: “I chaired and worked on many sub-committees. SLOC’s EC had the energy and water subcommittee, which made many recommendations about energy efficiency and water conservation elements that SLOC could implement for efficiency at the venues. The transportation sub-committee looked at air quality issues, idling buses, and various inversion problems. There was also a solid waste sub-committee. This group made the recommendation that the games should strive for a zero waste goal for the Olympic venues. This meant that within all Olympic venues, all waste would be recycled. All materials selected were purchased because they were recyclable. This is the first time an Olympic Games had done this.” EPHA’s efforts during the Olympics made great progress, and all along the way Governor Leavitt was extremely supportive. EPHA also worked on transportation issues and trying to identify ways to make it easier for large groups to come into the state and get from area to area. In addition, Leo Memmot was a great advocate and allowed information to flow.
In addition to managing environmental issues during the Olympics, EPHA was successful at bringing together government agencies to work collaboratively on environmental and health concerns at the local, state, and federal levels. The beauty of this working relationship was that when a large issue came up, a system had already been established so that everyone who needed to be involved was, and agencies supported each other with both manpower and financial resources that the state needed. This was the first time that the three layers of government came together with real goals and real deadlines for an Olympic event. Local, state and federal agencies worked together on streamlining mass gathering permits by developing a template to use throughout the state when the counties when issuing permits for Olympic venues and activities. Today, local health departments continue to use this template.
An example of how well EPHA and this collaborative group worked was when there was an Anthrax scare at the airport a week prior to the Olympics. Because the team had established a system of notification and set up resources to deal with emergencies in advance, they were able to access expertise and address the issue before it became a major problem.
Concerns were also raised with the winter sports park and the chemicals that were used and stored on site for freezing of the ice for the luge and bobsled course. Sonja Wallace explained, “The winter sports park stored approximately 1,800 pounds of anhydrous ammonia at the site. We worked extremely hard on identifying safety measures that could be implemented (without changing the quality of the ice) to ensure visitor and residence safety in case of a large accident or even a terrorist attack. A new technology was identified and installed on the course that would integrate new emergency shut off valves at intervals along the track to isolate a break in the anhydrous ammonia line along the entire course. Similar safety plans for operations of venues are now standard practice at every Olympics.
During the beginning part of the games when the athletes were arriving and getting settled into athlete housing, health concerns were being expressed because of an air quality inversion. This concern was voiced by many athletes. Country representatives were also voicing concern about the health of their athletes and about whether their teams would march in the Opening Ceremonies. However, EPHA and many doctors were able to communicate the minimal health risks involved, and luckily, there was great weather for the games.
As discussed previously, the relationships between agencies were very close, trust among individuals was high, and coordination was generally smooth. The DEQ held conference calls daily so everyone involved on the environment and health side of the Olympics could be briefed. They shared information broadly and published the information; this way of doing business is well known and still institutional.
During the Atlanta Olympics, the Federal Government did everything related to health and the environment using the state only as back up. In Lillehammer, all the venues were taken down at the end of the games. They exhibited a strong environmental platform. Salt Lake City chose to build a balance of permanent and temporary facilities. Sonja worked with architects to build recyclable temporary facilities.
As the Olympics came to a close, Utah’s reputation for planning became notorious. They started well in advance and Sonja Wallace did a great job coordinating the project. Collaboration with EPA, HHS, other agencies in HHS and state agencies plus local entities where venues were located made for incredible results. Federal and state money followed to provide planning services. Sonja did extensive planning and suggests to any city who will host the Olympics, “One thing that I would tell someone else is that you have got to have someone that is able to dedicate a great deal time to be part of the entire planning process. I planned for almost four years, full time.” On the flipside, an element that Sonja did not plan well was the distinctive color of the jackets that the EPHA wore—they were “Barney the dinosaur” purple. In hindsight, there were probably better color options. Overall, however, the games went incredibly well.
Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic Winter Games of 2002- Air Quality Plan:
Environmental Monitoring Program; 2002 Olympic Winter Games; Salt Lake City, Utah:
Utah Health Status Update: Public Health Preparations for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games: