* Australia's first cyclone of season bearing down on west
coast mining region
* Iron ore miner Fortescue says business as usual for now
* Miners monitoring as Cyclone Narelle gains strength
By James Regan
SYDNEY, Jan 10 Australia's first cyclone of the
storm season is intensifying off the country's northwest and is
expected to disrupt coastal areas in mining powerhouse Western
Australia state as soon as Friday, the Australian Bureau of
Fortescue Metals Group, Australia's third-largest
iron ore miner, said on Thursday its mines and port operations
were running as usual but it was monitoring the progress of
Cyclone Narelle as it bore down on Australia's west coast.
"Operations are continuing throughout the business as
usual," Fortescue said in a statement emailed to Reuters.
Fortescue and other mining companies with operations in the
Pilbara iron belt, including Rio Tinto and BHP
Billiton , each adhere to strict procedures for
keeping tabs on approaching cyclones. There are on average
around seven cyclones a year in Western Australia.
"We are also reviewing our tie-down plans and preparing
further plans if the cyclone suddenly changes direction and
speed," Fortescue said.
Iron ore was last quoted at $158.50 a tonne ,
the highest price since Oct. 14, 2011, in part on brisk buying
by Asian steel mills ahead of any delays to shipments from
Australia caused by cyclones.
Cyclone Narelle, now a category three storm, was expected to
gather strength and possibly be upgraded to a category four
cyclone by Thursday afternoon.
The storm was moving southwest towards Australia's Pilbara
coast, with winds in its centre of up to 195 kph (120 mph),
according to the Bureau of Meteorology, potentially causing
disruptions to iron ore mining and oil production.
At 0340 GMT, Narelle was located 760 km (470 miles) north of
the coastal town of Karratha, an oil and mining services hub
used by Woodside Petroleum, Apache Corp, CITIC
Pacific, Rio Tinto and others.
Warming waters off Australia can lead to cyclones between
December and April. Cyclones interrupted mining operations last
Port Hedland on the northern Pilbara coast is used by BHP
Billiton, Fortescue and Atlas Iron to ship hundreds of
millions of tonnes of ore annually.
The nearby ports of Dampier and Cape Lambert are used by Rio
Tinto, which last year shipped more than 200 million tonnes of
Port officials at Dampier and Port Hedland said the storm's
progress was being monitored closely. At Dampier, authorities
expected facilities to be shut down and ships to leave the port
later on Thursday.
Karratha is also a base for the $27 billion North West Shelf
LNG project owned by Chevron Energy, Shell
and Woodside Petroleum, as well as other oil and gas
Woodside said it was taking precautions to keep employees
and facilities safe but would only comment on any change to its
operations if there was a "material" affect on production.
Last March, Cyclone Lua halted output of about a quarter of
Australia's daily oil production of 390,000 barrels as companies
were forced to suspend offshore drilling and evacuate staff.
Wind speeds are calculated using a system categorising a
cyclone's intensity on a scale of one to five.