Three confirmed deaths following PNG quake

9:16 pm on 26 February 2018

The bodies of three people killed by a massive earthquake in Papua New Guinea have been taken to Mendi hospital in the Southern Highlands.

Landslide near the Ok Tedi Copper/Gold mine in Western Province.

Landslide near the Ok Tedi Copper/Gold mine in Western Province. Photo: Baundo Mereh /Facebook

The bodies were brought in by police early on Monday morning, according to the chief executive of the Southern Highlands Provincial Health Authority Joseph Birisi.

The magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck at a depth of 35km in Komo-Magarima district, the US Geological Survey (USGS) reported.

It hit at 4am local time, the USGS said.

More people are believed to have died in Mendi, Mr Birisi said.

"Parents with a child and they were buried. So they were brought in this morning by the police. They are at our morgue now. The others are yet to come in. I can't confirm that now because the bodies are not in yet," he said.

Mr Birisi said he had also received reports of deaths in rural areas outside of Mendi.

Mendi town on Saturday. Businesses were closed as the declaration of results stirred a violent reaction from some groups.

The town of Mendi in the Papua New Guinea Highlands. Photo: Supplied

Roads and rivers in the region had been blocked by landslides and buildings damaged and destroyed, he said.

Equipment in the hospital had been broken but the facility's power and water supplies had been re-connected, Mr Birisi said.

Disaster assessment underway

The Papua New Guinea government has dispatched disaster assessment teams to parts of Southern Highlands Province and Hela Province following the earthquake.

The National Disaster Centre is working with provincial authorities to assess any damage and impacts in the area, it said.

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.

Tari, Hela province, Papua New Guinea.

Tari, Hela province, Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

People in the Southern Highlands and Hela should stay out of multi-story buildings, be aware of the potential for landslides and be prepared to move to open ground in the event of an aftershock, the government advised.

Lack of communication hampering relief effort

the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Papua New Guinea says it has been difficult to establish communication with areas affected by the earthquake.

Red Cross volunteers close to the epicentre could not be contacted because of damage to the mobile phone network, the head of the organisation in PNG Udaya Regmi said.

Some reports were received from the Western Highlands but none from the town of Tari in Hela Province, close to where the earthquake struck, Mr Regmi said.

"We were able to reach out to reach out to provinces like the Western Highlands' Mt Hagen. They also felt shaking but there is no casualties in that area," he said.

"The city called Tari, 60 or 70 miles from that main epicentre, over 8000 population are not reachable."

Mr Regmi said he was awaiting updates from the National Disaster Centre and the PNG Red Cross.

MP fears multiple deaths in his electorate

A Papua New Guinea MP says he is trying to verify reports that up to 10 people died in this morning's earthquake in Hela Province.

The mobile phone network in the region has been disrupted, frustrating attempts by people in other parts of PNG to gauge initial reports of damage from the quake.

However, local MP Manasseh Makiba said he received preliminary reports from ExxonMobil personnel, via their satellite phones, as well as people in his district on landline phones.

"The reports are coming that the earthquake was very huge, and there was some casualties. There were landslides and destruction of some properties and houses.

"And there were reports of some lives being lost ... about ten."

Mr Makiba said the National Disaster Office is expected to dispatch a team to the area to assess the damage.

The quake is understood to have been felt in neighbouring provinces including Southern Highlands, Enga, Western Highlands and Western.

About half an hour after the 7.5 quake, an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.5 struck in the same area at a depth of 39km.

Mining and petroleum operations shut down

Images of the giant Ok Tedi copper mine in Western Provence indicated serious damage to roads and copper pipelines, the national coordinator for the PNG Resource Governance Coalition Martyn Namorong said.

Pipelines carrying copper concentrate and mining waste had also been damaged, raising serious concerns about toxic spills, Mr Namorong said.

While he indicated there were also concerns about the integrity of the gas pipeline that runs from the Highlands to Port Moresby, ExxonMobil PNG said it had no indications that its project pipeline sustained damage. 

Exxon's spokesperson said the company would undertake "a full visual inspection of the pipeline right of way as soon as it is safe to do so".

Mr Namorong said the images he had seen from the area showed enormous land slips and twisted pipes.

"Well in terms of the photos they're showing major landslides. These are not small landslides they're massive landslides. The damage is very, very significant.

"The quake would have been really, really massive in terms of ... in fact what people are saying is it's probably the worst earthquake they've ever felt in their entire lives."

The company Oil Search released a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange confirming the shutdown of its production facilities in the highlands due to the quake, Mr Namorong said.

A landslide blocking road accesses from Tabubil to Ok Tedi’s Fubilan Mine pit.

A landslide blocking road accesses from Tabubil to Ok Tedi’s Fubilan Mine pit. Photo: Baundo Mereh/Facebook

The company said it was trying to confirm that all its staff had been accounted for.

It said it was monitoring the impact of the quake on the local communities and would assist the authorities where possible.

The area is the hub of PNG's LNG Project, in which Oil Search has a 29 percent stake.

The epicentre of the quake was located in a rugged region near Mt Sisa, which is close to key infrastructure for PNG's ExxonMobil-led LNG gas project.

A spokesperson from Exxon told RNZ Pacific that all of its employees and contractors at its Hides gas facilities had been accounted for and were safe.

As a precaution, ExxonMobil PNG Limited had shut down its Hides Gas Conditioning Plant to assess any damages to its facilities, she said.