Massive Sulfuric Acid Spill in Australia

Posted in: Global Water News, Health effects, Water Contamination
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(Photo credit: World News Video/Youtube)

By Seren Nurgun, Staff Writer for Save The Water™ | March 8, 2016

On December 27, 2015, a 26-wagon freight train completely overturned and spilled about 31,500 litres (8,321.42 US gallons) of sulfuric acid of the total 819,000 litres (216,356.91 US gallons) it was carrying in northwest Queensland, Australia. The site at which the train overturned is located “roughly 100 meters from the nearest road” and the weather condition at the site on the day of the accident consisted of heavy rain, muddy grounds, and severe flooding(The Guardian). The rural location combined with the stormy weather greatly impacted the ability of local law enforcement and emergency crews to access the area immediately after the train overturned. As soon as they reached the site, however, they set up “a new access point and hoped it would allow experts to further examine the wreckage” later that week (The Guardian).

Sulfuric acid is “used in the manufacture of fertilizers, explosives, other acids, and glue; in the purification of petroleum; in the pickling of metal; and in lead-acid batteries (the type commonly used in motor vehicles” (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry). “People living near hazardous waste sites that contain sulfuric acid are at greater rick of exposure by breathing contaminated air than is the general public. Breathing sulfuric acid mists can result in tooth erosion and respiratory tract irritation” (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry). For agricultural purposes, with the correct certifications and permissions, sulfuric acid may be applied to soil in order to decrease the pH if the soil is too basic. Alternatively, too much acidity in the soil can decrease soil quality and negatively impact crop yield.
Near the spill site, a local property owner “said he was worried the spilled acid would contaminate water on his property”. To alleviate his and others’ fears, “a police exclusion zone of 2 kilometers around the area” was created and set to remain at least for a week following the accident, while advising the community “cleanup could take weeks” (The Guardian). Soon after the incident, the Queensland environmental minister and a team of senior environmental protection officers joined the effort. It was noted that the team of scientists had “done some testing [in] local waterways” and hadn’t “yet identified any contamination” (The Guardian). The minister suggested that “the sulphuric acid could be contained geographically”, but that further testing both over time and at the specific site would be required to make definitive statements about any water contamination. He also stated “it was too early to suggest whether safety measures for freight trains carrying toxic chemicals should be strengthened” (The Guardian). At this point in time, officials are left to wait and see if any environmental effects of the spill will arise.


“Sulphuric Acid Spill from Derailed Freight Train Prompts Water Contamination Fear.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.

“Public Health Statement for Sulfur Trioxide and Sulfuric Acid.” Toxic Substances Portal – Sulfur Trioxide & Sulfuric Acid. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 1 Dec. 1998. Web. 4 Feb. 2016.

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