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Cyclone threatens major Australia mining region

Residents in Australia's remote Pilbara mining region are warned that a cyclone gaining intensity could hit by the weekend.

world Updated: Feb 13, 2008 09:16 IST

Residents in Australia's remote Pilbara mining region were warned on Wednesday that a cyclone gaining intensity could hit by the weekend.

A powerful tropical storm off the coast of Western Australia had intensified overnight and reached cyclone intensity early on Wednesday, Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said.

The sparsely populated region, some 1,900 kilometres (1,180 miles) north of Perth, is home to scores of iron ore, manganese, nickel and bauxite deposits as well as nearby offshore oil and gas wells.

Tropical Cyclone Nicholas was 430 km (266 miles) northwest of the town of Broome and 620 km north-northeast of Port Hedland at 9:00 am local time (0000 GMT) and moving northwest at six kilometres an hour, it said.

The Bureau of Meteorology said the storm had reached category one cyclone intensity, with gusts of up to 100 km per hour.

"Further intensification is expected and Nicholas is likely to become a severe tropical cyclone in the coming days," the bureau said.

Nicholas is expected to show slow movement over the next day or so before moving toward the coast.

"Pilbara residents are advised that although the Pilbara coast west of Pardoo is not under threat in the next 48 hours, it is at risk of severe cyclone impact over the weekend," it said.

"At this stage, we're monitoring developments very closely," said a spokesman for Rio Tinto Ltd/Plc, the region's biggest miner of iron ore.

Tropical cyclones and severe storms typically batter the region between November and April, forcing Rio Tinto and other miners, including BHP Billiton Ltd/Plc and Fortescue Metals Group Ltd and offshore oil drillers to suspend operations and evacuate staff.

Last March, a powerful cyclone forced oil companies, including Santos Ltd and Woodside Petroleum Ltd, to shut about 180,000 barrels a day of production, half of Australia's output, for nearly a week.

Australian oil producer AED Oil Ltd said on Wednesday it had stopped production at its Puffin Northeast oil field in the Timor Sea, due to developing storms in the area.

AED said that if a cyclone develops it would have to disconnect its production vessel from the field, which has a daily production rate of between 6,000 to 10,000 barrels, and sail it to calmer waters.

Other operators in the area, located between northern Australia and Indonesia, include ConocoPhillips Ltd <COP.N>, which runs the Bayu Undan liquefied natural gas and condensate project.

Conoco could not be reached for comment on whether it had also suspended operations. Santos, which has a stake in the Conoco project, was also not available for immediate comment.