HOME Contact: turbidwater@hotmail.com Search: search tips sitemap

Mulwala - Australian Defence Industries (ADI).

Explosives plant polluting Murray

What is Nitrocellulose?

Explosives plant polluting Murray - (The Australian May 14, 2004. p5 by Cameron Stewart Michael McKinnon).

"Australia's military explosives factory has been spewing more pollution into the Murray River than the city of Albury, at up to 25 times the legal limit, internal defence documents show.

And despite a massive environmental clean-up, which has sharply reduced pollution flows since 2002, the government-owned explosives factory at Mulwala in NSW continues to breach legal limits, according to the NSW Department of Environment and Conservation.

The documents, obtained by The Australian under Freedom of Information laws, reveal the environmental damage caused by the country's only military explosives factory, which is on the NSW side of the Murray in a popular watersports holiday region 100km west of Albury.

The ageing factory, which makes explosives and propellants for the Australian Defence Force, was built during World War II.

A document written in October 2001 outlining plans to upgrade the effluent treatement plant at Mulwala says the factory produces an effluent high in nitrates and salts that was damaging the Murray. "This discharge is a significant input into the total river salt loading, equivalent of some of the major cities that also discharge into the river," the document says.

"The concentration of salts and fertilisers - including nitrates - is of great concern to all regulatory authorities because of the impact on downstream users of the river water."

The document says that in October 2001, the concentration of nitrates in the factory waste was 25 times the legal limit.

The former NSW Environment Protection Authority demanded the factory reduce the concentration of nitrates in the effluent from an average of 250mg per litre to the EPA's limit of 10mg/l.

"It was a Dickensian plant," Joe Woodward, executive director of operations for the NSW Department of Environment and Conservation, told The Australian.

Mr Woodward said the pollution had been reduced over the past two years, but the factory still struggled to meet environmental requirements.

"They have had some minor exceeding (of the limits), and we've said that's not good enough - we've issued formal warnings."

The Defence Department says it is working with the EPA and the community to "address historical contamination issues" at the Mulwala plant, which is owned by the commonwealth and operated by ADI.

A Defence spokesman said a new effluent treatment system had improved the quality of effluent from the factory, which he said "consistently meets licence requirements for discharge" into the river.

But environment officials say it has been a battle to get the department and ADI to tackle the contamination, which has built up over more than half a century.

With the project's future in the balance, the Howard Government committed $200 million in 2001 to rebuilding the factory which employs about 370 people and contributes an estimated $20 million a year to the local economy."

What is Nitrocellulose?

Nitrocellulose, nitric acid ester of cellulose, is usually formed by a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids on purified cotton or wood pulp. The nitrocellulose formed is sometimes called gun cotton. Guncotton is extremely flammable, it explodes when detonated and is used in the manufacture of explosives and propellants.

Guncotton replaced black powder as a propellant in the 1860's. Guncotton was the precursor to nitrocellulose, or modern gunpowder. Smokeless powder, developed in the 1880's, is actually nitrocellulose-based powder.

Nitrocellulose required much more processing than simply dipping cotton in acid and wood pulp soon became the preferred source of cellulose. The two sources of raw cellulose have different properties so they are used and blended based on their intended purpose of the finished product.

Cellulose is the chief constituent of the cell walls of plants. Important sources of cellulose include cotton, wood, flax, hemp, jute, straw and cotton. Not all nitrocellulose makes its way into military use and global production amounts to a 180 000 tonne global market. A large proportion of the global production of nitrocellulose is used in fabrics, nail polish, wood lacquers, paint, film, paperboard, binders, coating, foil and film lacquers, cosmetics, auto refinish paints, leather finishes etc etc.

Wood pulp is often preferred because it costs less, implying that large plantation owners and logging multinationals who can produce vast quantities of cellulose would be the major supplier to nitrocellulose manufactuers.

A major major user of nitrocellulose in Australia is ADI (Australian Defence Industries - owned by Thales and Transfield Holdings). ADI has recently been given a commitment from the Australian Federal Government to modernise their Mulwala Facility (Mulwala was first constructed in 1942 and is Australia's only remaining source of military propellant, explosives and rocket motors). The modernization will include a new propellant plant as well as nitrocellulose and solvent manaufacturing capabilities.

Propellant sales from ADI have grown in the past few years. ADI propellant is used by NASA to explode the bolts to seperate the booster from rockets from its space shuttles. ADI recently exported 2800 tonnes of propellant to the US company Hodgdon Powder Co Ltd. ADI has a long term agreement to supply munitions to the Australian Defence Force (ADF).


During the early phases of the Second World War, APM (Australian Paper Manaufactuers), participated in a joint venture with government authorities to develop wood pulp for nitrocellulose production. Due to the high pentosan content of eucalypts, attention was directed towards plantation thinnings of radiata pine grown in South Australia. By late 1943 APM had successfully adapted its Kraft process to the pine thinnings, and created 'papered wood cellulose' which replaced imported pulp used in the production of cordite. A year or so later, APM developed a higher purity pulp 'alpha cellulose board'. APM exported their product to the US Army.

Types of Explosives Where Nitrocellulose is Used.

Low-Order Explosives: Most modern military low-order explosives are used as propellants. Propellants impart motion to something like a rocket or projectile. They ae classed as single-based, double-based and composites. Single-based propellants are the simple forms of nitrocellulose powders. Double-based propellants are nitrocellulose powders that have nitroglycerin added to them.

High-Order Explosives: Used for blasting and armour piercing ammunition and require EC Powder or modified nitrocellulose.

Some Manufactures of Nitrocellulose

Green Tree Chemical Technologies: Based in Parlin New Jersey, Green Tree was the only producer of military grade nitrocellulose in the US until the formation of American Powder Co by ATK and General Dynamics in 2001. Green Tree purchased the Parlin plant from Hercules Inc in 2000. The Parlin plant has been producing Nitrocellulose since 1915. Their nitrocellulose is a critical component of miltary grade ammunition used in weopons like the Trident and Hellfire missile.

Allied Techsystems (ATK): A leading manufacturer of military - and commercial - grade nitrocellulose for use in the production of gun propellants, rocket propellants and energetic formulations. (Formed American Powder Co - based in Radford Va, with General Dynamics in order to knock Green Tree out of the nitrocellulose market). ATK is the largest supplier of ammunition propellant to the US Department of Defense and is a major producer of commercial and military smokeless powder.

General Dynamics: Formed American Powder Co with ATK. The company is a major military company with 2001 sales of about $11.5 billion. General Dynamics' Combat Systems Group produce over 120 types of Ball Powder Propellant for law enforcement, industrial and sporting ammunition and various military applications.

Denel Group: South African company whose subsidiary Somchem (based outside Cape Town) produces propulsion systems for artillery, tactical rockets and missiles.

Synthesia: Czech manufacturer of nitrocellulose for military use.

FM Villa Maria: Argentinian company with links to Argentinian military.

Which forest companies could be implicated in supplying the military?

Rayonier: Based in Florida, take smaller pine and hardwood trees used by dissolving mills that manufacture high purity cellulose products. Rayonier also operate in Tasmania and New Zealand.

Weyerhauser: This US company produces High Alpha Cellulose from its Cosmopolis mill in Washington State.

Other Industrial producers

Buckeye Technologies: Based in Tennessee co specialising in Nitrocellulose.

Bayer: German multinational and its subsidiary Wolff Cellulosics.

Group SNPE: French Industrial Group which owns Bergerac ( a world leader in nitrocellulose production).

T.N.C. Industrial Co Ltd: Taiwanese company and the world's second largest producer of nitrocellulose.

China Nitrocellulose Co: Hong Kong based company formed by agreement of Bergerac and TNC.

Nobel Enterprises- ex ICI: Based in Ardeer Scotland producing nitrocellulose for mainly industrial purposes, but also sell to the military. Nobel was recently sold to Troon Investments, a subsidiary of Inabata and Co Ltd, Japan.

Tembec: Canadian multinational who specialises in cellulose derivatives.

Asha Nitrochem: India's largest producer of nitrocellulose for chemicals and explosives - probably now a subsidiary of ICI.

Scholle Corporation: Based in Chicago.

Orica: Australian multinational.