Major quake, aftershocks in Papua New Guinea cut communications, halt oil and gas operations

A 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit early Monday in the rugged, heavily forested Southern Highlands province, about 560 kilometres northwest of the capital, Port Moresby, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Unconfirmed report says 10 people died and thousands of properties have been destroyed

People near the township of Tabubil inspect a landslide and damage to a road after an earthquake that struck Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands. (Jerome Kay/Handout via Reuters)

At least 13 aftershocks with a magnitude of 5.0 or more rattled Papua New Guinea after a major temblor struck the Pacific island nation early Monday, causing landslides, damaging buildings, closing oil and gas operations and forcing at least one company to begin evacuating non-essential personnel from the energy-rich interior

The 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit about 89 kilometres southwest of Porgera, the site of a large gold mine, in the rugged, heavily forested Southern Highlands province at around 3.45 a.m. local time Monday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

A spokesperson at Papua New Guinea's National Disaster Centre said by telephone the affected area, about 560 kilometres northwest of the capital, Port Moresby, was very remote, and the agency could not properly assess damage until communication was re-established.

In this photo released on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, by Indonesia's National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), local officials inspect the damage to a mosque following Monday's powerful earthquake in neighboring Papua New Guinea, in Boven Digoel, Papua province, Indonesia. (BNPB/Associated Press)

He said there were no confirmed deaths, although the International Red Cross (IRC) in Papua New Guinea said some reports indicated there were "fears of human casualties."

Citing Hela province's administrator, the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier reported that 10 people were killed and thousands of properties were destroyed.

"It's very serious all across the Southern Highlands and also all over the Western Highlands. People are definitely very frightened," Udaya Regmi, head of the IRC in Papua New Guinea, said by telephone from Port Moresby.

The PNG government also said it had sent disaster assessment teams. While aftershocks shook the area, no tsunami warnings were issued.

ExxonMobil shuts plant

Early on Tuesday, USGS reported that another quake with a magnitude of 6.4 had hit 142 kilometres from the city of Mount Hagen at a depth of about 10 kilometres.

"The Papua New Guinea Defence Force has also been mobilised to assist with the assessment and the delivery of assistance to affected people as well as the restoration of services and infrastructure," Isaac Lupari, the chief secretary to the government, said in a statement after Monday's quake.

The quake-affected area is home to a number of oil-and-gas operations and coffee plantations.

One local report said 10 people were killed and thousands of properties destroyed by the 7.5 magnitude quake that struck Papua New Guinea's rugged, heavily forested Southern Highlands province. (Google Maps)

ExxonMobil said it had shut its Hides gas conditioning plant and that it believed administration buildings, living quarters and a mess hall had been damaged. It also said it had suspended flights into the nearby Komo airfield until the runway could be surveyed.

"Due to the damage to the Hides camp quarters and continuing aftershocks, ExxonMobil PNG is putting plans in place to evacuate non-essential staff," the company said in an emailed statement.

Gas is processed at Hides and transported along a 700-kilometre line that feeds a liquefied natural gas plant near Port Moresby for shipping.

An official at the Porgera gold mine wrote on Facebook that he planned to find out what caused power blackouts and other damage after the quake shook struck.

Panic in Papua 

PNG oil-and-gas explorer Oil Search said in a statement it had also shut production in the quake-affected area.

Both Oil Search and ExxonMobil said there were no reports of any injuries to their staff, and ExxonMobil said its staff was accounted for and safe.

The giant Grasberg copper mine operated by the Indonesian unit of Freeport McMoRan in neighbouring Papua province was not affected, a Jakarta-based spokesperson said.

However, the quake and several aftershocks caused panic in Jayapura, the capital of Indonesian Papua, Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency said in a statement, but there were no reports of casualties or damage there.
 
The IRC's Regmi said communications were "completely down" in Tari, one of the larger settlements near the quake's epicentre, and that landslides had cut roads.

Several other aid and missionary agencies said poor communications in the area made damage and injury assessment difficult.

"The bush structures that they build tend to handle earthquakes extremely well," Christian missionary Brandon Buser told Reuters after contacting several remote villages by shortwave radio.

Earthquakes are common in Papua New Guinea, which sits on the Pacific's Ring of Fire, a hotspot for seismic activity due to friction between tectonic plates.

"This is the Papuan fold-and-thrust belt, so it's a typical movement of faults in that region, but it's big," said Chris McKee, acting director of the Geohazards Management Division in Port Moresby.
 
Part of Papua New Guinea's northern coast was devastated in 1998 by a tsunami, generated by a 7.0 quake, which killed about 2,200 people. The island nation — home to about seven million people — is located on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, to the east of Indonesia.

With files from The Associated Press