Home' Defence Magazine : Issue 2 2012 Contents “under very tight secrecy, Australia acquired about one million chemical weapons, including
types of mustard agents and phosgene gas.”
– Colin Trinder, Director Environmental Impact Management
Issue 2 2012
Issue 2 2012
WHEn a former US ammunition depot at
Columboola near Chinchilla in Queensland was
discovered in 2009, attention focused on the issue
of chemical warfare agent storage and use during
World War II and the residual contamination legacy.
The Director of Environmental Impact Management,
Colin Trinder, explains what happened.
“The new owners of Columboola were preparing to
mine coal at the site,” Colin says.
“As their contractors were surveying the site for
unexploded ordnance, they found a number of pits
containing a total of 144 artillery shells filled with the
chemical warfare agent Mustard H.”
This chemical agent is a direct contact hazard for
skin and lungs and is also a carcinogen.
“The Columboola site itself is relatively isolated from
the public,” Colin says, “but the presence of buried
ordnance containing an active chemical agent at a
potential mining site posed a risk to mine workers,
their equipment and the environment.
“We had to arrange the safe destruction of the
munitions and a comprehensive clearance of the
entire depot site to remove all detected munitions.”
The team from Defence Support Group’s National
Contamination remediation Program was tasked
to coordinate destruction of the chemical munitions
and site clean-up.
The site at Columboola, 330km west of Brisbane,
was originally used as a US Army depot in 1942.
Around this time, Australia, with US and British
assistance, embarked on a campaign to counter
the advance of the Japanese Imperial Army from
“Under very tight secrecy, Australia acquired about
one million chemical weapons, including types of
mustard agents and phosgene gas,” Colin says.
“These munitions were stored at strategic locations
across Australia, including disused railway tunnels
and cleverly disguised ammunition depots. They
were intended as a last resort in the defence of the
nation and thankfully were never used, although
extensive testing was carried out.”
At the end of the war, secrecy was maintained and
the huge stockpile was dispersed, being dumped at
sea, burned or buried.
“In the mid-1970s some efforts were made to clean
up the most obvious sites where chemical agents
had been used or destroyed in the war years,” Colin
continues, “but it took almost 70 years for the facts
to really become known.
“The pressing urgency of the war effort had meant
that little consideration was given to post-war use
of these sites and the prospect of encroachment by
urban or other development could not have been
The discovery of a piece of unexploded ordnance on a potential mining site would
be cause for concern. But when a company found more than 140 artillery shells
filled with a chemical warfare agent, Defence took the lead in making the site safe.
70 years on
The 2009 discovery required a careful and
coordinated response. As a signatory to the Chemical
Weapons Convention, Australia has international
obligations regarding the reporting and destruction
of chemical weapons found on its territory.
Consequently, the Australian Safeguards and non-
proliferation Office, within the Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade, and the international Organisation
for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, were also
involved in the approvals process for the munitions
destruction project. Organisation for the Prohibition of
Chemical Weapons inspectors visited the site prior to
the munitions being destroyed.
“We also sourced some expertise in chemical
munitions destruction from the US Government,
through the Edgewood Chemical and Biological
Center at Aberdeen in Maryland,” Colin says.
These US experts assisted in aspects of munition
preparation, destruction and safety monitoring.
People from the Defence Science and Technology
Organisation and ADF also supported aspects of the
work at key phases, and the Queensland Government
assisted with emergency response support from fire
and ambulance services.
Colin describes the careful destruction of the
munitions. “We brought a transportable munition
destruction facility to the site from the US. Each
munition was detonated in a controlled explosion
inside a chamber where a ‘donor’ explosive charge
destroyed both the munition and the chemical agent
in one step.”
The 144 munitions were progressively destroyed
during April and May 2011 with computer-controlled
systems monitoring the entire process.
Colin is positive about the effectiveness of the system.
“This is a highly effective way of managing all forms
of waste, as hazardous gases are neutralised and
solid metal waste can be disposed of appropriately
to a licensed recycling facility,” he says. “The entire
system is fully enclosed and all emissions and waste
are monitored for the presence of any contamination.
The system is effective enough to allow metal scrap
to be cleaned to a standard where it is suitable for
Following the destruction of the munitions found in
2009, a detailed survey is progressing systematically
across the entire site. All metal contacts are being
excavated. If no further munition items are identified,
the project is expected to finish in June this year and
the site will be handed back to the mining company.
“The lessons we have learned from this project
about managing the risks associated with chemical
agent contamination have proven invaluable,” Colin
says. “It has left Australia with a lasting capability
and knowledge on this type of complex clearance
A stockpile of drums of mustard chemicals at Darra,
Queensland, in 1943.
Photo: Defence Support Group
US Army personnel prepare recovered
mustard gas artillery shells for testing
and destruction in Columboola,
Photo: Defence Support Group
By Leila Fetter
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