Clean-up begins for Australian chemical weapons

A $35 million clean-up is currently underway at a former World War II U.S. military depot in Columboola on the Western Downs in Australia as experts search for dumped chemical weapons, many of which may contain mustard gas.

According to Colin Trinder, director of environmental impact management for Australia's Department of Defense, many of the 144 shells that were found at the Columboola site in 2009 were found to be carrying active agent of mustard gas, “Mustard H,” The Chronicle reports. 

“They are all still as dangerous as they ever were and they were designed to kill,” Trinder said, according to The Chronicle. “We are dealing with a higher level of risk than we had previously been aware of.”

While specialist contractors from the Australian Millsearch company continue the task of searching the 160-hectare area with metal detectors, a team of U.S. experts on chemical weapons has been repackaging the shells in steel tubes and sealing them in containers to avoid risk to the people on the site.

“Nobody has touched this stuff since World War II,” Trinder said, according to The Chronicle. “We have had 4,000 hits on the ground with metal detectors. Most will be scrap metal but some may well be burial pits. It is very likely there are other pits that contain high explosive and chemical rounds.”

According to Trinder, records show that there may have been as many as 500,000 chemical rounds stored at the Columboola site at a time during World War II.