Make a Mess, Clean it Up
and Keep it Quiet

a report of the Cyanide Spill at Condobolin July 1992


The driver of the Superfreighter on the transcontinental line saw the semi trailer truck stopped on the level crossing and had time to toot his horn; but there was no stopping the Superfreighter, which ploughed into the semi, instantly rendering it scrap metal and killing its driver and passenger.

The collision derailed three locomotives and 10 wagons and tore up 200 meters of track; the first two of the derailed wagons each a bore steel shipping containers of sodium cyanide pellets packed in heavy duty plastic bags.

It was 2 pm Tuesday 20 July and outside Condobolin, western NSW, .

The National Party Member for Lachlan and NSW Minister for Agriculture, the Hon. Ian Armstrong, is reported in Condobolin's biweekly newspaper, The Lachlander, of 24 July saying 120 tonnes of cyanide was on the Superfreighter.

The Lachlan Shire Manager of Environmental Services reported in the same paper reported that 42 tonnes of cyanide were spilled from two ruptured containers from the same derailed wagon. The Sydney Morning Herald of 22 July reported the amount as 40 tonnes.

All agree that it was from ICI (now Orica) in Gladstone and that it was on its way to Kalgoorlie.

According to the Lachlander 24 July, "the sodium cyanide was in pellet form and strewn over a wide area of the smash". The Sydney Morning Herald 23 July reports 5 tonnes spilled on the smash site.

The evacuation of homes in a 3 km radius was immediately effected and for fear of the generation of deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, the whole area was sealed off, including the Newell Highway.

Ten days later the smash was still being cleaned up and roads were still closed. Big cranes had to be brought in to right and re-rail the rolling stock.

The Lachlander of 31July reports: "Police, State Rail Staff, the Fire brigade and State Emergency Services are still at the scene..." and "There are still some cyanide pellets under these carriages and in the ground ..."

The Condobolin Airport was immediately closed though by what authority, the Shire Manager was not sure because the decision was enacted before the Shire, whose property it is, had decided.

All agreed helicopters stirring up dust and cyanide were not welcome. For this reason it seems, no city print or TV news crews got to the site and recorded it. The Sydney Morning Herald carried the story for just 2 days.

The only news photo of the spill published is believed to be of a Condobolin identity who had a role in the clean up, looking at the sky for signs of rain. Dubbed "Luke Skywalker", the joke is that he was looking and praying hard.

Fortunately no rain came.

To placate fears of an evacuation amongst the 3,500 residents of Condobolin, The Lachlander of 28 July reported that on Sunday 26 July, State Rail in conjunction with Emergency Services arranged two busloads of residents to be taken to the periphery on the smash site "so they could see for themselves the enormity of the situation".

The accident attracted a lot of experts. The NSW Fire Brigade HAZMAT Unit arrived by helicopter at 5.30 pm, three hours after the smash.

The Lachlander 25 July reports a Mr Simon de Bell, Industrial Chemicals Business Manager for ICI (now Orica), saying incongruously: "Rail is the safest method of transporting sodium cyanide to reach mining sites in remote parts of the country."

The Hon. Ian Armstrong MLA, who diverted a charter flight he was on at the time of the smash, was soon on site staying there for two and a half hours, in constant conversation with NSW Premier John Fahey.

In The Lachlander of 24 July, Armstrong reports how impressed he was "by the way in which local emergency services personnel swung into operation at the crash site to secure the area in a dangerous situation caused by the cyanide pellets spill."

Volunteer firefighters were the heros of those days. The Forbes Advocate of 4 August reports the NSW Regional Commander North West, Frank Thomas, commending "the efforts of the 40 volunteers who worked tirelessly in removing toxic sodium cyanide pellets from the scene."

Volunteers from stations through out the district assisted and they came from Parkes, Condobolin, Dubbo, Forbes and Blue Mountains. In particular he praised the Condobolin brigade who were first to respond to the emergency scene.

"They recognized the seriousness of the situation and were able to warn other emergency services to stay away until the cyanide spill was confirmed," Commander Thomas said.

The NSW Opposition Spokesperson for planning and environment, Pam Allen, used the occasion to attack the Fahey government on its reluctance to implement its Chemical Inquiry.

"Chemical safety law has been brought to a halt. As long as the Government will not implement the laws these hazards and incidents will continue to happen," she is reported as saying in the Sydney Morning Herald of 22 July.

"Reform of chemical safety laws has been deliberately delayed because the State Government has been more concerned about its own survival rather than protesting the environment and human health."


The lessons from this story are:

1. Rail transport of cyanide may be safer than road transport but it is not absolutely safe.

2. When rail cyanide accidents happen they make a big and life threatening mess.

3. Cleaning up the mess becomes a responsibility for local volunteer fire brigades.


This report is based up the research done by Auntie Ellie Gilbert of Condobolin. Thank you Ellie

For the Earth. To the dust!

Graeme Dunstan
27 June 2006

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