UPDATE 2-China Sept coal imports fall to 15-mth low, small uptick seen
* Sept imports down for third straight month at 14.86 mln T
* Jan-Sept imports at 165.3 mln tonnes, up 34 pct from yr ago
* Small recovery seen in the coming winter months (Adds trade comments, power plant stocks)
SHANGHAI, Oct 24 (Reuters) - China's coal imports fell for the third straight month in September to stand at their lowest in 15 months as a slump in domestic prices made overseas supplies less attractive, but traders are eyeing a small recovery in the coming winter.
China is the world's top coal importer and a drop in purchases since June has weakened global prices, with Australia's Newcastle spot thermal coal index down nearly 30 percent since the start of 2012, at about $84 a tonne.
September coal imports stood at 14.86 million tonnes, a fall of 14 percent from August and a drop of 21.8 percent on the year, customs data showed on Wednesday. The volume was also the lowest since shipments of 13.7 million tonnes in June 2011.
Shipments should pick up slightly in the coming months, boosted by winter heating demand, traders said.
"We should see imports go back up to around 17 million to 18 million tonnes a month from November onwards, because some Chinese buyers have been out in the market last month to pick up cheap supplies," said a Singapore-based trader.
"Whether it goes higher than that depends on the arbitrage."
Chinese buyers said physical demand remained sluggish and there were few signs local power plants needed to stockpile large volumes for winter, since inventories remained high.
Qinhuangdao port, the main shipping point for the coastal trade in domestic thermal coal, had a stockpile of 5.36 million tonnes on Thursday, up 11.7 percent from an average of around 4.8 million tonnes in October last year.
With the maintenance of the key Daqin-Qinhuangdao railroad coming to an end, supplies from the mine will start to rise and put more pressure on stockpiles and prices, traders said.
STEAM COAL LEADS DECLINE
The fall in imports was largely led by shrinking shipments of steam coal, used in power generation. Imports of coking coal, a key steel-producing raw material, were down 6 percent on the month, at 2.42 million tonnes.
Traders had widely expected September shipments to fall, as tumbling domestic and international prices in June and July had prompted several local buyers to renege on their orders.
High coal inventories, cheaper domestic supplies and a gloomy economic outlook also prompted Chinese buyers to either cancel or delay shipments due in August through October, a period of low seasonal demand.
Total shipments in the first nine months of the year were 165.25 million tonnes, up 34 percent on the corresponding 2011 period. Industry participants forecast total 2012 imports to rise around 10 percent from a year ago, to top 200 million tonnes.
China exported 530,000 tonnes of coal in September, down 56.2 percent from a year ago, and down 18.5 percent from August. (Reporting by Fayen Wong; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
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