Green Building  

London Olympics: When Carrot Becomes Stick

Contributor Mark Anthony comments on London's crack-down on diesel construction equipment in preparation for the Games
 Diesel equipment will require particulate filters

Written by Mark Anthony

Now don’t get me wrong.   I would like to think that I am every bit as environmentally-aware as the next vegetarian tree-hugger. While I do have a penchant for driving just a little over the approved speed limit, I’d describe myself as law-abiding without a moment’s hesitation or guilt.   And while not a true athletics fan, I do enjoy brief moments of patriotism (usually followed immediately by searing disappointment) every four years when the Olympic Games rolls into another city on the verge of bankruptcy after five years of preceding demolition and construction works.

But while I share my fellow countrymen’s excitement at the prospect of welcoming the Games to London next year, there is a small part of me that is seething at the way in which the much needed demolition and construction workload that accompanies this immense undertaking was hijacked as a vehicle to force rental fleet operators to tow the environmental line.

I am talking here about the insistence by the Olympic Delivery Authority – the body responsible for bringing the 2012 Games in on time and on budget – that all equipment over 49 hp on the 650 acre Olympics site will be fitted with a diesel particulate filter.

This insistence stems from the London Best Practice Guide (BPG) which, among other things, sought to address the issue of clean air within the confines of London. This guide, like so many other pieces of well-meaning but ultimately flawed pieces of environmental lobbying, sat largely unheeded on a back burner in Westminster. But the success of the London 2012 Olympic bid changed all that.

Faster than anyone could say London 2012 Olympiad, the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) got its claws into the UK Transport Minister on the basis that “poor air quality reduces the life expectancy of every person in the UK by an average of seven or eight months and impacts particularly on children, the elderly and those in poor health”. The EIC then persuaded some 28 members of parliament to call upon the ODA to adopt the Best Practice Guide, which the ODA duly did.

But to what end?

Certainly, the true benefit of diesel particulate filters remains open to speculation. They are proven to have virtually no effect on air quality at a distance of 400 feet from the machine itself.   On a site that measures more than 650 acres, the only people on the Olympic site likely to benefit are the construction workers. Furthermore, a recent report commissioned by the European Union suggested that construction equipment was directly responsible for less than 1.7% of all particulate emissions recorded (combustion plants and road transport are the biggest contributors).  

There is also concern among construction equipment manufacturers and operators that the retrofitting of diesel particulate filters may impact upon warranty cover. The fact that these filters are fitted to the machine’s exhaust outlet has also raised concerns that they might be a burn hazard or that they could create a blind-spot for the operator.

The greatest concern, however, is the physical cost of retrofitting such a device. Current estimates suggest that the cost could be anywhere from $3,000 to $9,000 per machine.   And when you consider that there could be upwards of 2,000 machines operating on the site, that’s a potential bill of $6 million and $27 million.

Now of course, there could be an argument that the contractors and rental fleet operators forced to part with $3,000 to ensure that their kit complies will make it back in spades in both workload and increased profile. But with the recession biting hard, no contracts escape the pre or post tender scalpel, and the purchasing policies of clients (including the ODA) are seemingly devised to ensure the thinnest possible margins for fleet operators and contractors.

Moreover, the ODA has a strict and rigorously enforced “no publicity” clause written into all its contracts. As a result, the names of contractors and rental fleet operators are removed from machines; and in one extreme case, a construction equipment journalist was recently threatened with arrest for photographing the operations from a public road!

The Environmental Industries Commission is, of course, right about one thing: We all want cleaner air. But to use the world’s greatest sporting event to force through legislation that will make such a negligible difference to air quality in the UK capital and which will cost the hard-pressed construction and demolition business millions of dollars surely flies in the face of the Olympic spirit of fair play.

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