An Unexpected Find
In 2009, contractors conducting a due diligence survey of a prospective open cut coal mining operation in a quiet rural Queensland town unexpectedly stumbled upon a burial of 144 HD mustard rounds. Columboola, which is situated 350km N/W of Brisbane, acted as a US chemical weapons storage base during the Second World War. This unanticipated discovery transformed local folklore of buried bombs into a very real and serious issue. Thus began the largest chemical weapons investigation and destruction campaign to be undertaken in Australia since WWII.
The subsequent destruction and investigation that took place across the 730-hectare floodplain is one of the country’s most effective collaborative efforts between State, Federal and international government agencies, private industries and the community.
OPEC Systems and Milsearch partnered together to complete the massive scale civil and structural works at the site and to undertake the destruction of the 144 munitions. This enormous project provided OPEC with a unique opportunity to engage in a live chemical warfare agent environment and to test and refine our equipment, policies and procedures.
OPEC worked together with Defence and the Director of Emergency Management (DERM) to advise and support both the environmental, engineering and logistics aspects of the works.
Establishment of the Destruction Facility
The project entailed the establishment of the destruction facility on the large Columboola block, which at the time was in the process of being developed into an open cut coal mine. Power, water, roads, lighting, hardstands, security infrastructure, and destruction and administration facilities all had to be installed to operate autonomously as the site had no existing services. The team spent over two months preparing a set of Defence approved operational project plans for works, prior to commencing any remediation works.
Destruction of the Munitions
The primary task on the project was the destruction of the 144 munitions, which was administered using the TC-60, a mature batch thermal destruction technology that implodes and destroys munitions by detonation and intense heat and pressure. OPEC staff assembled the complex destruction system on site over a 10 day period. Despite working through the wettest season on record, the site was rapidly established with OPEC managing the engineering and site and transport logistics and the final round of munitions was destroyed on target on May 19th 2011.
The Successful Completion of the Largest Chemical Weapons Destruction Campaign
Thanks to a focused effort from OPEC and all parties involved, the destruction operation was completed on time and on budget without a single safety or environmental incident.
The Columboola project was a showcase example of a cooperative multi agency approach and has cemented its name in Australian history as the benchmark for live chemical agent operations.
Many of the Columboola Team continue to develop their skills through project assignment by OPEC to other CBRN decontamination projects, facilitating their expanding expertise in the area. This ongoing commitment by OPEC is supporting Australia’s capability to respond to contamination incidents in this highly specialised field.