Coal mines shut as Australia evacuates flooded towns
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Heavy rains shut four coal mines in eastern Australia on Friday as military helicopters evacuated stranded residents from inundated towns, and authorities warned of further flash flooding.
More than 11,000 people in Queensland state have been isolated by the flooding and thousands had been evacuated, emergency services authorities said.
The town of Moree, the centre of the region's cotton growing, has been cut in half by record floodwaters, while authorities are using helicopters to relocate 300 people already at an evacuation centre in the outback town of Roma to another centre on higher ground.
Whitehaven Coal said it had shut four mines due to heavy rainfall, but the mines were not flooded and no equipment had been damaged. Other miners and liquefied natural gas producers reported their operations had so far not been affected.
Flash floods across Australia's Queensland and New South Wales states in early 2011 killed around 35 people, swamped 30,000 houses, and wiped out roads, bridges and rail lines.
The 2011 floods also damaged crops and inundated coal mines, pushing up prices for coal. Australia is the world's largest coal exporter and accounts for roughly two-thirds of global trade of coking coal, used for steel production.
Peter Birch, who runs a cotton farm outside Moree, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that floodwater had trapped him on the second storey of his home.
"We woke up this morning with wallabies, kangaroos, an echidna and a koala sitting in the trees, so I think everything is headed to any little bit of high ground they can," he said.
Birch said the floods are set to wipe out A$500,000 to A$750,000 ($537,000-$805,000) worth of cotton crops from each 500-hectare farm in the area.
The Queensland Resources Council said many of the state's mines were still carrying water from last year's wet season and it was monitoring mining areas.
"Sites are reportedly dealing well with what are traditional wet season issues such as site access and water accumulation," said Queensland Resources Council Chief Executive Michael Roche.
A spokeswoman for Xstrata, the world's largest thermal coal exporter, which has mines in both New South Wales and Queensland, said it was not aware of any impact due to the wet weather.
In the northwestern district of Queensland, Xstrata said it had resumed operations at its Ernest Henry copper mine following a short suspension last week to ensure the safety of staff.
"Most of our operations are now back online and we are currently assessing recovery times and the potential production impacts from this event," Xstrata said in an e-mail to Reuters.
Another coal major, Rio Tinto, said it would not comment on production.
About $45 billion worth of liquefied natural gas export projects are also under construction in southern Queensland.
Santos said it had suspended some of its operations at its $16 billion Gladstone LNG development.
"However the impact on operations has been minimal. None of our equipment or facilities is at risk," Santos spokeswoman Samantha Santy said in an email.
Origin said its Australia Pacific LNG project was unaffected, while BP Group said their operations were outside of the flooding area.
The Bureau of Meteorology said heavy rains were likely to add to already overflowing rivers and warned of localized flash flooding. It cancelled a severe weather warning for parts of New South Wales.
The flooding over the past week could also affect crops, the government's commodities forecaster ABARES warned, adding that the rain has reportedly affected sugarcane, soybeans and corn.
Storm damage was estimated to have cut Australia's commodity-weighted economy's gross domestic product growth by A$20 billion, or 1.5 percent, in the 2010-2011 financial year. ($1 = 0.9317 Australian dollars)
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