MEMBERS of the public walking in Morton and Budawang national parks, trailbike riders and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts are being warned of possible danger from unexploded ordnance left by the armed forces over nearly 70 years of military activity in the area.
Thousands of rounds were fired by artillery units and bombs were dropped by aircraft on what was then called the Tianjara Firing Range, but amazingly there has never been a survey of the area.
The most recent public safety document on the subject is confidential and cannot be viewed by the public.
Cris George, a former range safety officer with the army who has researched the issue in-depth, bringing over 40 years’ experience in the armed forces to bear on the subject, worked on the range itself. Mr George has issues with the official documents on the subject.
“It is not a consistent document,” he said.
“In one part you see the Defence Department giving advice that in the southern area of the range it is safe to walk on the tracks and in another part of the document the advice given is that you only have to stick to tracks in the northern part.
“There is likely to be unexploded ordnance throughout the former Tianjara Range, which goes from Main Road 92 all the way down to just short of Pigeon House.”
Mr George has highlighted a variety of issues with official documentation on the region.
He said one key issue was that a survey had never been completed for the former Tianjara Range and that given the limits of current technology and the wilderness nature of the area, no survey was likely to happen any time soon.
“We know that the impact area was defined in 1971 and we are reasonably certain the artillery was aimed at the army’s impact area, not the NSW Parks and Wildlife marked impact area,” he said.
“What they call an impact area is an ‘assessed probability of UXO’ area. UXOs have been found in the southern area and groups of bushwalkers have stumbled upon piles of UXOs. The National Parks and Wildlife Service says there are no UXOs in the south, however army personnel have said that they fired mortars and grenades in the southern part of the range.”
Bob Snedden is a member of the advisory committee to the National Parks and Wildlife Service for the Morton and Budawang parks.
“In 2010 I raised concerns over how the situation was being handled,” he said. “I wrote to one of the parks directors over it and nothing happened.
“There is a plethora of official records, maps and correspondence, between National Parks and Wildlife and [the Department of] Defence and records that really do prove my concerns.”
Like Mr George, Mr Snedden had an issue with the most recent risk assessment being kept confidential.
“Can you imagine someone having complaints at BHP and then someone saying we’re going to do a risk assessment on that, so they pay some contractor to come in and then the union goes to the management and says can we see the risk assessment and they say it’s none of your damn business? It’s crazy.
“I haven’t set out to shaft anyone with this, but there are too many gaps in the information and we’re talking about public safety, for goodness sake.”
National Parks and Wildlife Service regional manager for the South Coast, Diane Garrood, denied there was a lack of consultation with stakeholders and visitors to the park.
“During the process [of developing the Budawang Walking and Camping Strategy document] we had extensive consultation with bushwalker groups and part of it was looking at the unexploded ordnance risk within the area. That discussion was part of developing the risk management approach for the area.”
However, Mr George said he was probably the leading expert on the site, the range, the ordnance and the safety aspects associated with it and he had never been consulted by NPWS.
Mrs Garrood said NPWS had acted responsibly with regard to unexploded ordnance littered throughout the Morton National Park.
“There are signs there and warnings on the parks and wildlife website. The topographic map is marked as a military training area and bushwalking clubs know that they should not be promoting walks in that area.”
However signage is inconsistent and/or non-existent depending upon how and where one enters the park.
The Register investigated references to danger from unexploded ordnance with groups that might use the park and couldn’t find any. In fact the 4x4 Australia website, which promotes 4WD exploring, has an extensive entry on the Tianjara fire trail track and there isn’t a single reference to the range or the need to stay on the trail within the park. On a trailbike enthusiast website there was another write-up of the park, the tracks and the Tianjara firetrail and again – no mention at all of any potential danger or reference to the fact that this used to be a firing range.
Even the Department of Environment’s own website devoted to driving trips in the Morton National Park makes no reference whatsoever to any potential danger from unexploded ordnance and of the need to stay on the marked trails.
Mrs Garrood said nobody had been harmed to date. “There has been no incident of harm from UXO with people actively interfering with it,” she said.
When asked if a trailbike rider might inadvertently trigger an unexploded bomb by riding his bike over it, Mrs Garrood said, “There is unexploded ordnance throughout the country. It’s not unique to Tianjara. That doesn’t diminish the concern. We are actively managing it, but it is not exclusive to this area.”
Mr George said another scenario was far more likely to happen.
“The most likely thing to occur, as was the case with that kid that took the railway detonator home the other day, is that someone sees a bright looking object in the bush and they pick it up, take it home and start mucking around with it or take it to school for show and tell. Then there will be public alarm and quite justifiably so.”
Despite the official view that there is nothing to worry about as long as we stick to the official trails in the park, both Mr Snedden and Mr George said more had to be done.
“None of this is rocket science,” said Mr George.
“I’m not suggesting that there is a conspiracy, it’s just that the risk assessment has not been done. Let’s do a risk assessment and advise the people accordingly because the people can handle it.”
If you do stumble across a cache of Vietnam-era unexploded ordnance during a bushwalk, there’s this official advice from Mrs Garrood.
“We would strongly advise that regardless of whether it is inert or not that people should not be touching anything that they may consider to be UXO.”