By James Regan
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Major iron-ore export ports in northwestern Australia, which account for half the world's seaborne-traded iron ore, have reopened or are expected to restart operations later on Thursday after a powerful cyclone weakened after hitting land.
Port Hedland, used by BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals to ship more than 20 million metric tons of iron ore a month, will reopen for inbound vessels by 0800 GMT, according to a port official.
The port of Dampier, 200 kms (120 miles) south of Port Hedland and the main Indian Ocean shipping terminal used by Rio Tinto to export iron ore, reopened late on Wednesday and has advised vessels to return to port anchorages.
Cape Lambert, a third smaller iron ore port near Dampier, is also expected to reopen.
"It is expected that both Dampier and Cape Lambert will resume ship loading later today," a Rio Tinto spokesman said.
Rail car dumping and mining was not affected and has been continuing throughout the week, the spokesman said.
"It remains to be seen if as much rain falls in east Pilbara region as was predicted earlier, we are closely monitoring that situation," he said.
Cyclone Rusty, which packed winds up to 200 kms (120 miles) per hour at its strongest, had closed all three ports which handle 500 million metric tons of iron ore annually.
At one stage Port Hedland had expected a "direct hit" from Rusty, but the massive category four storm, one short of the most destructive category five, crossed the coast about 100kms (62 miles ) north. It is now a category one storm and weakening.
"At this stage, things are looking pretty good, though we still need to assess the situation for any damage," Port Hedland Port Authority (PHPA) spokesman Steed Farrell said.
"Once these inspections are complete and everything is confirmed as fully operational, the PHPA will look to open the anchorage and port operations," he said.
Officials have lifted evacuation alerts for Port Hedland, which was closed for a total of 86.5 hours. On average the port moves 750,000 metric tons of iron ore a day.
"Storm surge is no longer a risk for the Port Hedland area now that the cyclone has crossed the coast," the Western Australian Fire and Emergency Services said in a statement.
Satellite tracking showed the cyclone crossed the coast near Pardoo, a small mining town and cattle station about 100 kms (60 miles) northeast of Port Hedland, early on Thursday. Atlas Iron, which operates a mine in Pardoo yielding around 2.5 million metric tons of ore a year, has evacuated the site.
As Rusty weakens into a rain depression concerns of widespread flooding remain, with weather warnings stretching 500 km (310 miles) inland to the mines and towns of Tom Price, Mt Newman and Nullagine, operated by Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group.
Spot iron ore prices steadied just under $152 a metric ton this week, supported by the potential disruption in supply from Australia.
($1 = 0.9793 Australian dollars)