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Mining, oil and gas companies in full preparation mode as cyclone season looms

Babs McHugh, Tuesday October 3, 2017 - 17:49 EDT
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The cyclone season officially starts in November. - ABC

The official cyclone season is one month away but many mining, oil and gas companies are already well advanced in cyclone preparation planning.

According the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), the average number of cyclones has traditionally been between seven and 11 a year.

However, it now forecasts , but those that do form will be of much greater intensity.

Andrew Burton is the resources manager with the bureau, which has commercial agreements with many resources companies onshore and offshore, from the north-west of Western Australia, across the Northern Territory and to the north-east of Queensland.

"There's always uncertainty involved in forecasting and I think when it comes to tropical cyclones, people appreciate there can be a fair bit of uncertainty," he said.

"The challenge these days it to be able to measure exactly how much uncertainty there is, so we can present worst-case scenarios that either a community, or an industry, or a company is facing."

Cyclones can be very unpredictable, changing their path or track rapidly, but new technology used by BOM alleviates that.

"We can predict out to four days the track of a cyclone as accurately as we used to be able to predict them just out to 12 hours in the mid 1980s," Mr Burton said.

Miners batten down hatches to ride out cyclones

In 2007, severe Tropical Cyclone George crossed the Pilbara coast in north-west Western Australia near Port Hedland.

It continued into the interior and wiped out a temporary railway camp, and two workers were killed.



The coroner found the temporary accommodation dongas the workers were in did not have the correct cyclonic-wind rating, and made a number of recommendations to change the way such buildings were approved.

Pilbara Minerals was exploring for lithium in the same region at the time, but had already evacuated its team from the exploration camp well before the cyclone hit.

The Pilgangoora lithium mine, which is in a category D cyclone zone, is now under construction.

Pilbara Minerals chief executive Ken Brinsden said there were 100 workers on-site, and that number was expected to grow to 400 over the next eight months during peak construction period.

"From the outset we've constructed facilities that [are rated to] cope with a D zone region, which means we're basically dealing with the biggest of the cyclones," he said.

"So the buildings are well secured, well tied down, they're strong and able to act as shelters for workers if a cyclone comes through.



"Then there's also the procedures we work with before and during the cyclone season, making sure the teams are well educated about the warnings coming through."

Mr Brinsden said this included keeping abreast of weather events, and making sure the company was receiving daily, if not hourly reports, from the bureau.

"We buy a sophisticated service from them to make sure that we're well informed, and get a very site-specific account of what's occurring," he said.

Make a cyclone plan then stick to it

In the same way that a chain is said to only be as strong as its weakest link, a cyclone preparation plan will only work if it is adhered to.

Peter Emmett is a principal consultant with emergency management company Dynamiq Global, and has seen procedural failure on oil and gas rigs twice in the past few years.

"The company had evacuated the non-essential personnel, but they hadn't followed their own plan to evacuate all personnel off the offshore facilities," he said.

"They had people sheltering in place in the mess and accommodation facilities during the cyclone, so thankfully it wasn't a category five.

"In the end the workers weren't put at risk."



FIFO chef ready to fly back into next cyclone season

Head chef David Gilmour has been working on offshore oil rigs and floating facilities for decades.

He has weathered almost a dozen cyclones, and has seen how the safety culture has changed.



"Many years ago I was on a facility and the boss wouldn't let us get off when we should, then we had to be evacuated and that was a very scary experience," he said.

"The [evacuation] helicopter couldn't land on the deck and the facility was swaying 15 to 20 metres either side.

"We were told if we missed grabbing on to get into the helicopter and we fell into the ocean, it was hasta la vista baby."

Mr Gilmour and his team have been preparing for cyclone season for months, moving heavier objects to floor level and running through drills.

"I'm flying back into another cyclone season in a couple of weeks so I'll probably end up in another cyclone, but I'm quite comfortable with it," he said.

"It's my duty, especially at my skill level, to help the new people on board, and anyone else who's not prepared for a cyclone."


- ABC

© ABC 2017

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