SYDNEY (Reuters) - All mines in Australia’s Kalgoorlie region were evacuated on Tuesday following a 5.2 magnitude quake, and will not reopen until safety checks are completed, which may take days, a mine union official said.
Mines in the area produce around 50,000 metric tons of nickel and a million ounces of gold a year.
“The report at the moment ... is that all mines have been evacuated and all miners have been tagged and accounted for. And no mine is working at the moment,” Australian Workers Union National Secretary Paul Howes told Australian media.
Kalgoorlie is regarded as the mining capital of Australia, with some of the country’s biggest gold mines, such as the Super Pit, and has historically been at the center of Australian gold rushes.
“We’ll be making sure over the coming hours and possibly days that no mines are reopened until the appropriate safety checks are done,” said Howes. “We’re not sure how long the mines will need to be shut down.”
Workers at Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit gold mine, the country’s biggest open cut gold mine, were evacuated as a precaution, a Super Pit mine official said, and emergency services said they had not received any reports of major damage to mines in the area.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the 5.2 quake was centered 30 km (19 miles) northeast of the town of Kalgoorlie. The quake damaged several buildings in Kalgoorlie and the nearby mining town of Boulder, but there were no reports of injuries.
Miners would not re-enter mines until safety inspections had been carried out and the mines were declared safe, Howes said, adding that safety checks would take longer for underground mines compared to open pit mines such as the Super Pit.
The Super Pit gold mine, a giant hole dominating one end of Kalgoorlie’s business district, is owned 50-50 by Newmont Mining Corp (NEM.N) and Barrick Gold (ABX.TO) and produces about 850,000 ounces of gold a year.
The mine measures 3.6 km (2.2 miles) long, 1.6 km (1 mile) wide and 512 meters (1,680 ft) deep.
Significant rock falls could hinder the re-start of mining, said Howes. “Certainly we know now that at the open cut mine there has been some significant rock falls and we expect similar problems in underground mines,” he said.
Mining giant BHP Billiton (BHP.AX) BLT.L said its Nickel West operations in the area had not been affected by the quake.
BHP operates a nickel smelter in Kalgoorlie and purchases nickel ores from a handful of independent mining companies in the Kambalda region, about 50 km (31 miles) outside Kalgoorlie town.
There are reports of residents in Kambalda feeling the quake.
Kalgoorlie, 600 km (370 miles) east of the city of Perth, was founded in the outback goldfields in 1893 and 50 mines still operate in the district.
The quake is around 1,200 km from the iron-ore rich Pilbara, and a similar distance from the offshore Northwest Shelf oil and gas operations, which have not been affected.
The Kalgoorlie quake was much larger than the mine blasts that regularly rock the town, said Geoscience Australia seismologist David Jepsen.
“This is the largest event in the last 25 years in this region and it might be the largest since we started recording,” he said.
Emergency services said residents in Kalgoorlie and Boulder had been told to turn off electricity, gas and water due to the quake and aftershocks.
Additional reporting by Jim Regan and James Grubel; Editing by Balazs Koranyi and Michael Urquhart