Miner resilience to be tested as La Niña looms

FM Global group manager, account engineering Michael Beaumont explains what the threat of the La Niña weather system means for the mining industry.

As the saying goes, “time and tide wait for no man”, so you should jump at an opportunity when it presents itself because nature continues regardless of our plans and preferences.

That phrase seems particularly apt this year. Despite having already thrown a global pandemic our way, 2020 is now forecast to bring with it a potentially dangerous La Niña weather system.

This fast approaching reality makes clear just why FM Global has consistently advised clients and other organisations this year not to let the pandemic distract from other serious yet more traditional risks, like natural hazards.

In August, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) announced that the chance of a La Niña weather system forming was three times higher than average – around 70 per cent.

At the end of September, it confirmed the system is underway. La Niña is forecast to bring an elevated risk of additional rainfall for central, eastern and northern Australia, potential flooding, and a heightened risk of cyclones and damaging winds.

The last significant La Niña weather system to hit Australia spanned 2010 and 2011, leading them to be the third and second wettest calendar years on record, respectively. The BOM reports that flooding was widespread from September 2010 to March 2011.

As well as severe flooding in southeast Queensland, large areas of northern and western Victoria, New South Wales, northwestern Western Australia, and eastern Tasmania were subject to significant flooding.

Cyclones also featured. During the summers of 2010-11 and 2011-12, several cyclones struck, including severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi – the strongest cyclone to make landfall in Queensland since at least 1918 – another La Niña year. It made landfall as a category five, near Mission Beach, between Cairns and Townsville. While Yasi mostly missed any major mining sites, it did cause enormous damage to a local port, Port Hinchinbrook.

Flooding linked to the 2010-11 La Niña nearly brought Australia’s coal industry to a standstill.

According to Reuters news agency, around 85 percent of Australia’s coal mines across a “region bigger than Texas” either had to restrict output or close as record rains fell.

Thermal and coking coal mines in Queensland were worst hit by flooding from cyclones and heavy rain.

All in all, the disaster was the costliest faced by Australia at the time, with the estimated cost of rebuilding Queensland alone set at $10 billion.

Resilience is a choice

At FM Global, we remind our clients that resilience is a choice. While it is not certain that La Niña will impact Australia as other climate drivers also factor into the ultimate outcome, preparation is key.

Given this year’s unprecedented events in light of COVID-19, it’s clear that risk management in other areas could be in danger of falling off the priority list.

The announcement of La Niña is a timely reminder of why we must be vigilant at all times and keep emergency response plans up to date.

In order to improve resilience in the face of La Niña, we recommend:

  • Reviewing your protection works. If you have not recently checked all of your flood levees and berms, right now would be a very good time to do that. Engineered floodworks, especially those made of materials like compacted soil, can erode over time. Note that it’s important to make sure your inspections are being done by the right people. For those beyond a certain size and technicality, or which defend particularly valuable and critical parts of your operation, having geotechnical engineers come in to do these evaluations of their integrity might be necessary.
  • With cyclones in mind, double check all of your cyclone protection measures, from bracings on doors to lockdown systems for surveyors.
  • Ensure that you have adequate stockpiles of necessary materials should your site be cut off by flooding. Food for on-site staff, chemicals needed for operations, or tools to clear debris.
  • Check the resilience of your supply chain. If you are reliant on a particular port either for material out or supplies in, check in on their emergency response measures and develop contingency plans.
  • Run through a mock of your emergency response plan to ensure all of the necessary procedures are in place and everyone knows their responsibilities. You’d be surprised how often we encounter organisations who discover during these processes that critical response responsibilities are assigned to individuals who are in different roles or maybe no longer work at the company.

While it’s certainly the case that the mining sector has so far come out of the pandemic relatively unscathed, it too must be factored into preparations.

Border restrictions remain a reality for now – and could continue to be a hindrance to the free flow of people and equipment should case numbers flare up again.

Specialists needed to repair or replace equipment in the event of damage caused by flooding or a cyclone may be harder to come by while border closures remain a reality.

What this means is simply yet another reason to ensure that you have taken adequate measures to protect your equipment through comprehensive risk mitigation plans.

Whether or not La Niña and the excess rainfall and cyclones eventuate this year, preparation is sure to be a worthwhile investment as climate change continues to lead to warmer oceans and increased chance of cyclones and excess rainfall, even outside of a La Niña year.

A warmer world is a wetter world and one in which readiness is the key to resilience.

Visit FM Global’s website for more information and online training resources to help mitigate flood risks in your organisation.

This feature also appears in the November edition of Australian Mining.

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