Mine Disasters show real cost of using cheap solutions for waste storage

In PNG it seems we always let the mining companies take the cheapest option – river or marine waste dumping or a tailings dam. The companies make huge profits but it is local people and the environment that shoulder the costs But there are better solutions if only our politician and regulators weren’t so weak…

BHP's Brazil mine disaster is another example of mining companies putting profits before people

BHP’s Brazil mine disaster is another example of mining companies putting profits before people

Danielle Bochove | Insurance Journal

As miners globally review the way they store waste in the wake of another horrific dam spill, the solution may be as simple as it is dramatic: spend a lot more.

Images of sludge spewing into towns and rivers could be a thing of the past if mines used different types of storage such as removing water or building on more stable ground. While that can be as much as 10 times costlier for companies already squeezed by slumping prices, the cost is much higher when things go wrong.

The cleanup bill for the Nov. 5 spill at the Samarco iron-ore venture in Brazil, owned by BHP Billiton Ltd. and Vale SA, probably will exceed $1 billion, on top of years of lost output, Deutsche Bank AG said.

“A failure is a lot more expensive than doing it right,” said Dirk van Zyl, professor of mining engineering at the University of British Columbia and one of three experts on a panel into a dam spill in Canada last year.

The Samarco breach, which propelled about 13 billion gallons of mud into communities below, comes a year after Imperial Metals Corp.’s Mount Polley mine in Canada also dumped billions of gallons into lakes and rivers. A common trait in the two cases was the fluidity of the waste.

‘Thorough Review’

Samarco says its dams were deemed safe in a July inspection and that it’s too early to determine reasons for the spill. On Monday, BHP Chief Executive Officer Andrew Mackenzie said the company is “carrying out a thorough review of all of our dam facilities of scale.” On the same day, Vale said it’s open to improvements, even after concluding that its other installations, which use state-of-the-art safety practices, were fully compliant.

Tailings are the ground rock and effluents left over after milling. And when it comes to storage, the dryer the better, van Zyl said in a telephone interview.

Dry-stack tailings facilities, used in Chile where earthquakes are common, can cost 10 times more than so-called upstream ponds, in which discharged tailings become the foundation for future embankment raises, van Zyl said. The next best option, building storage on virgin ground and limiting the amount of water, could cost twice as much, he said.

Economic Driver

Still, those higher investment and operating costs pale next to the expenses associated with a catastrophic accident.

“When you allow economics to be the primary driver we’re going to see more safety-related incidents, and that’s what’s happening,” said David Chambers, president of the Center for Science in Public Participation, a non-profit group based in Bozeman, Montana.

When asked if any of the dams used upstream construction, Samarco’s owners referred questions to Samarco, which didn’t provide a response. Alberto Sayao, a civil engineering professor at the Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro and a board member of non-governmental organization Brazilian Dam Committee, said the dam that burst, Fundao, was an “upstream heightening” design.

At Mount Polley, the upper portion of the dam was upstream, although the spill was attributed mainly to a layer of clay under one section, Chambers said. Imperial’s press department in Vancouver didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Ban Urged

Whatever the cause, there’s no doubt the damage from both breaches would have been much less if the tailings had been less fluid, Chambers said. He co-authored a study, still to be peer- reviewed, which predicts the number of catastrophic failures will increase as miners are tempted to build larger upstream ponds in order to cut costs.

Regulators need to ban upstream construction and “wet closures” of old tailings ponds, in which the water is allowed to remain, Chambers said. Asked whether the incident in Brazil shows miners need a new way to store tailings, the emergency response coordinator of environment agency Ibama said “it needs to be evaluated,” without elaborating.

The mandate of a panel into the Mount Polley case was to ensure that future large-scale tailings disasters would be impossible in Canada, rather than just to lower the probability, according to Norbert Morgenstern, the panel’s chairman.

By starting there, the focus quickly shifted to changing the nature of tailings themselves, and making them less fluid, Morgenstern said in an interview. That way, “if you have a failure, it’s not going to go very far.”

Not Feasible

How tailings should be stored will vary from location to location, Ben Chalmers, the Mining Association of Canada’s vice president of sustainable development, said in an interview. Certain sulfide-heavy tailings may be safer under some amount of water, while dry storage may not be feasible in wet climates or at very high-output mines, he said.

While dry-stack storage is expensive while a mine is operational, it is much cheaper when it comes time to close, said Chuck Jeannes, CEO of Goldcorp Inc., which uses dry-stack storage at mines in Canada, Mexico and Guatemala and has a dedicated manager in charge of tailings.

“The short answer is, yeah it’s more expensive,” he said in an interview. “But the long answer is, I don’t think it’s as much as people believe it is.”

1 Comment

Filed under Environmental impact, Financial returns, Human rights, Papua New Guinea

Five mining leases approved by Fiji government

Director of Mineral Resources Malakai Finau

Director of Mineral Resources Malakai Finau

Watisoni Butabua | Fiji Village

Five mining leases have been approved by government.

Director of Mineral Resources Malakai Finau says out of the five, only two are currently operating at the moment and that is the Bua bauxite mine and the Vatukoula Gold mine.

Finau says more than 1 million tonnes of bauxite have been exported so far for Nawailevu.

He says in terms of royalty the department has collected approximately $1.2 million.

He says more than 100 workers have been employed by Aurum Exploration Limited.

The Director for Mineral Resources for the Vatukoula Gold Mine, they have exported about 39 thousand ounce of gold last year.

Finau says they expect similar amounts this year.

He says about 1000 people are currently employed by Vatukoula Gold Mine.

He also says that government has granted mining lease to Canadian Lion One Metals Limited for the Tuvatu Gold mine in Nadi.

Finau says they are in the construction period at the moment.

He says two other mining leases have also been granted to Asia Pacific Resources Limited for the Wainivesi Gold mine in Korovou, Tailevu and Amex Resources Limited for Iron sand mine at the Ba River.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiji, Financial returns

Chinese/Canadian owned Porgera Mine resumes operations


Merolyn Ten | Post Courier

PORGERA Gold Mine in Enga Province has resumed operations at its milling and processing plants following 16 days of partial shutdown due to the recent dry weather condition.

In the latest months of severe dry weather periodS, water have run very low causing the mine to shutdown its milling and processing plants just to conserve supply.

The milling and processing plants that depend intensively on water to perform production activities at the mine were only affected, said operator Barrick (Niugini) Limited.

However, after 16 days of partial closure, the water levels at the dam at Waile Creek reached sufficient levels to start operating the plants. As the latest mine in the Asia-Pacific to be disrupted by the El Nino-driven drought, it is confirmed now that the mine is on full operations. The mine workforce arrangements were not affected as a result of the partial shutdown.

According to Barrick, the temporary shutdown only affected the milling and processing plants while all other operations at the mine were continuing as usual.

During the shutdown period, the company used the opportunity to bring forward maintenance work that would have occurred at a later date. This work was completed without any complications.

With the resumption of the milling and processing, operations at the mine remain on track to meet this year’s operational targets.

Barrick (Niugini) Limited is a company incorporated in Papua New Guinea, and operates the Porgera Gold Mine in Enga Province on behalf of the Porgera Joint Venture partners.

BNL is an independently managed company and is jointly owned through an equal partnership between Barrick Gold and Zijin Mining Group.

The Porgera Gold Mine employs more than 2500 Papua New Guineans, and over the life of the mine it has contributed about 10 per cent of PNG’s total annual exports.

Leave a comment

Filed under Papua New Guinea

Toxic sludge from BHP mine reaches Atlantic after Brazil dams burst

Officials says thousands of hectares of land and water affected by “country’s worst environmental catastrophe ever”

The dams that collapsed were located on hills overlooking the two districts that were devastated by the disaster [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]

The dams that collapsed were located on hills overlooking the two districts that were devastated by the disaster [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]

Ryan Rifai | Al Jazerra

A mudflow thick with toxic mining waste, which initially spilled earlier this month from the collapse of two tailings dams into a main river in southeast Brazil, has now reached the Atlantic Ocean, says Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama.

Ibama told Al Jazeera on Sunday that thousands of hectares of land and water in the region have been affected by what has been described as the country’s “worst environmental catastrophe in history”, after the flood of sludge travelled at least 500km through the Rio Doce (Sweet River) over the past few weeks.

On November 5, about 60 million cubic metres of iron-ore waste – an amount that could fill around 25,000 Olympic-size swimming pools – engulfed and devastated Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu, two districts in the state of Minas Gerais, and contaminated the river, which was a primary source of clean water and food in the region.

At least 11 people were confirmed killed, 15 went missing, and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

Authorities are struggling to find 15 people still missing more than two weeks after the disaster [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]

Authorities are struggling to find 15 people still missing more than two weeks after the disaster [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]

Some people living in fishing and farming communities along the river say their livelihoods have been severely hurt by the disaster.The extent of environmental damage is still being measured, according to Brazil’s Ibama agency.

As biologists struggle to contain the environmental damage, Brazil’s Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said it could take up to 30 years to clean up the Doce basin.

Meanwhile, the government is probing the cause of the collapse of the dams in a step towards taking civil action against the mining company Samarco, an Australian-Brazilian joint venture that owns the dams, after punishing it with a $100m fine.

Samarco, jointly owned by BHP,  has agreed to pay more than $250m in compensation over the disaster.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Samarco, one of the world’s largest producers of iron-ore, said that inspections by authorities last July indicated that the dams “were totally safe”.

“Samarco also performs its own inspections, according to the Federal Law of Dam Safety, and has an operations team working a 24-hour shift for the maintenance [of the dams] and identification of any abnormality,” it said.

Hundreds of people have been displaced [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Hundreds of people have been displaced [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

“Samarco is distributing water to the places affected by the mud. On November 9, 158 families – representing 612 people – were provided accommodation in hotels on Mariana’s region by Samarco.” The company also detailed its efforts to provide relief and compensate victims.

“There were seven available helicopters for rescue operations and the company delivered 600 emergency kits (composed by mattress, linen, towels, blankets and materials for personal hygene). 3,800 snacks and meals were available, and 10,000 bottles of water were delivered.”

Samarco added that it was in the process of providing 700 temporary houses for the victims.

It also said it was working to build wells in the region in an effort to remedy the clean water shortage.

The disaster has ignited calls for stricter regulations for the storage of mining waste in the country.

Thousands of hectares of land and water have been affected by the toxic spill [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Thousands of hectares of land and water have been affected by the toxic spill [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Leave a comment

Filed under Environmental impact, Human rights

A year to forget for BHP as deaths mount

An electricity worker attempts to cross a flooded area in Barra Longa after a dam burst on Thursday in Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. Brazilian searchers are looking for 23 people still listed as missing following the burst of two dams at an iron ore mine in a southeastern mountainous area. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

BHP Billiton has assured cost cutting won’t affect future safety following the Brazil mine disaster. (AAP)

The world’s biggest mining company BHP Billiton has given assurances that cost cutting won’t affect future safety as the death toll mounts in Brazil.


It’s a year that BHP Billiton would rather forget.Lives have been lost, a village has been wiped out and shares in the world’s biggest miner are at 10-year lows.

As the death toll from the Brazilian mine disaster reached at least 10 this week, BHP executives tried to provide some insight into the tragedy which has disrupted the lives of thousands of people and covered their region in mine waste and mud.

A dam burst at the Samarco iron ore mine in Mariana a fortnight ago, unleashing a torrent of muck onto the nearby village of Bento Rodrigues and contaminating drinking water in the region.

In addition to the mounting death toll in Brazil, where eight people remain missing, five BHP employees have lost their lives during the 2015 financial year worldwide.

The death toll has weighed heavily on the executives who have apologised repeatedly in recent weeks.

While weaker commodities prices have forced BHP to slash costs in recent years, the company’s chief executive Andrew MacKenzie gave assurances on Thursday that cost reductions would not affect safety into the future following the Samarco disaster.

Mr Mackenzie told reporters that BHP aimed to ensure its tens of thousands of employees always chose safety over productivity.

“I strongly believe that the way we simplify and make this company more efficient, it actually enhances safety, enhances the health of our workforce,” he said.

Chairman Jac Nasser said the drivers of good safety were also the drivers of good productivity.

“There should not be a trade-off,” he said.

But environmental groups say BHP hasn’t learned from previous tailings dams failures such as the Ok Tedi environmental disaster in Papua New Guinea (PNG) which destroyed villages and disrupted the lives of thousands.

Mr Mackenzie said BHP had created a fund for the clean-up and development in PNG, and it added that it intended to continue its Samarco business.

“There should be no doubt that our desire is to get it back to being a good business again and we are committed very much to the long term,” Mr Mackenzie said.

CMC Markets chief market strategist Michael McCarthy said the company’s shares had lost around a third of their value this year and were just off ten year lows.

“It’s been a tough year,” Mr McCarthy said.

But he said low commodities prices and a potential change to the company’s dividend policy were now factored in to the company’s share price.

Shares in the company closed eight cents higher at $20.50.

Analysts estimate the Brazilian disaster will cost BHP around $1.2 billion over three years.

Still, no one is sure whether the affected areas can be rehabilitated and rebuilt.

One of Brazil’s major river systems, Rio Dolce, remains at risk as the mine waste continues to flow towards the Atlantic Ocean, destroying crops and killing fish.

BHP Billiton plans to publicly release the findings of an external investigation into the Samarco disaster.

1 Comment

Filed under Environmental impact, Human rights

Barrick’s remedies for Rape in Papua New Guinea deeply flawed according to American law experts

porgera women rape

Harvard Law

Legal experts at Columbia and Harvard law schools find major deficiencies with remedies given by multinational company to women raped by its security guards

A controversial process created by one of the world’s largest gold mining companies to compensate women for rapes and gang rapes in Papua New Guinea was deeply flawed, said human rights investigators and legal experts at Columbia and Harvard Law Schools in a study released today.

The three-year study of Barrick Gold’s remedy mechanism at its Porgera gold mine found that the effort to provide packages to 120 rape survivors was flawed from the start and fell far short of international standards.

“These are some of the most vicious assaults I have ever investigated,” said Professor Sarah Knuckey, one of the lead authors of the report, and the Director of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Institute. “The women and local communities had to struggle for years just to get the company to admit what happened.”

Most women were offered less than $6,000 USD each in compensation, and were also given some counseling and healthcare. Knuckey continued, “They had been suffering for far too long, and deserved much more.”

For several years, security guards at the Porgera mine physically assaulted and sexually abused members of the community. It was only after repeated pressure by local and international groups that the Canadian mining company finally acknowledged the sexual violence and launched an internal investigation in 2010. The company created a remedy mechanism to handle claims by survivors two years later.

The legal investigators interviewed dozens of survivors for the 129-page report, Righting Wrongs? [3.4MB], which found that, in this situation, the women should not have had to sign away their legal rights to sue in order to receive remedies. In addition, the process excluded survivors of many other, non-sexual assaults by company guards, and had insufficient outreach, so some survivors did not know about the mechanism in time to bring their cases. The report also says that inadequate security measures were put in place for survivors, and that some women have reported being threatened and beaten up by family members when their rapes were discovered.

“If remedy mechanisms are to have any chance of addressing egregious violations, they must take on the gross power imbalance between a company and survivors,” said Clinical Professor Tyler Giannini, one of the lead authors and Clinical Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. “Many of the women signed the company’s agreements because they felt that they simply had no other choice.”

The importance of power was highlighted again this year, when eleven women who obtained U.S.-based lawyers refused to accept the company’s packages, and were given confidential settlement packages believed to be about ten times greater than the amount given to the roughly 120 women who used Barrick’s process. Upon learning this, the lesser-compensated survivors came together to demand more. The company quickly more than doubled their packages, which are still far less than what those who had U.S. lawyers received, and women in Porgera continue to demand that they should receive equitable packages.

The report found that there were some positive features of the mechanism, but that necessary safeguards such as consultation and prior engagement with the survivors and robust legal counsel for the women were either unimplemented or poorly implemented.

“When a company creates and controls the process on its own, there’s an inherent conflict of interest,” said Giannini. “Survivors should be involved early in the process, and on equal footing throughout, so that they do not feel forced into compensation packages that fall seriously short.”

Rather than company-created models, the report suggests an approach that brings companies, survivors, and communities into the joint design of the remedy process. This approach centers the survivors in the process from the outset, and can help address power differentials. The report also calls on the company to provide additional remedies to the 120 women so that their agreements are in line with the amounts received by the eleven women represented by U.S. attorneys; void all legal waivers signed by women; provide remedy to individuals who faced other security guard abuses, including physical assaults; and to provide urgent security protection to women who are currently at risk.

The remedy mechanism is one of the first to be created after the release of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011, which set out the responsibilities of companies for human rights. The Porgera mine has been open since 1989. Barrick Gold became majority-owner and operator of the mine in 2006. Since then, the clinics have actively investigated the situation at the mine. The Columbia and Harvard human rights clinics presented the report this week in Geneva at the 4th Annual United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights.

Leave a comment

Filed under Human rights, Papua New Guinea

The Next Gold Rush Is Unfolding 5,000 Feet Under the Sea

nautilus cutter

Brian Merchant | Motherboard / Vice

Rabaul, a township on the northern tip of Papua New Guinea’s New Britain island, is still covered in the ash of a volcano that exploded decades ago. Eruptions have twice decimated the city, once in 1937, and once in 1994. Both times, locals rebuilt and soldiered on. Today, if you’re driving across Rabaul, you’ll pass long stretches where ash is still piled on the shoulder and even on the middle of the road; it’s so thick you’ll want to close the windows to keep the dust from filling the car.

That volcano violently decimated the island’s then-major industry—tourism has yet to fully recover, over 20 years later—but it may yet become the bedrock of another one. The only issue is, that industry doesn’t actually exist yet. And some environmentalists, scientists and activists hope it never does.

Here in Papua New Guinea, one well-financed, first-mover company is about to pioneer deep sea mining. And that will mean dispatching a fleet of giant remote-operated robotic miners 5,000 feet below the surface to harvest the riches scattered across ocean floor. These mammoth underwater vehicles look like they’ve been hauled off the set of a sci-fi film—think Avatar meets The Abyss. And they’ll be dredging up copper, gold, and other valuable minerals, far beneath the gaze of human eyes.

It’s a little-watched but fast-approaching milestone that raises serious questions about the future of consumption in our rapidly modernizing, mineral-hungry world: How deep are we willing to dive to get the materials that make our electronics run?

The idea of razing the barely-studied deep sea floor has many nervous—from locals who worry about an accident, to scientists who fear we may be destroying an ecosystem we don’t yet understand. But as crucial materials like copper grow scarcer, might mining the deep, far away from human populations, be a reasonable endeavor? Or should the mere fact that we’re poised to roll over the ocean floor with robotic harvesters be cause enough to take pause and reassess the sustainability of our thirst for the metals that shape modern life?

Regardless, the first deep sea mine is slated to begin operations in just over two years, at a site called Solwara-1, leased from the Papua New Guinean government. It’s just off the coast of Rabaul, at the watery foot of that active volcano.

Eruption on the Rabaul caldera. Image: Wikimedia / Richard Bartz

Eruption on the Rabaul caldera. Image: Wikimedia / Richard Bartz

Like, say, nuclear fusion, seafloor mining is a high-tech promise that has been attracting serious investment, winning sporadic headlines, and lingering on the cusp of becoming a reality for about half a century. But in 2018, a Canadian company called Nautilus claims it will begin to do what no one else has been able to: Actually mine the deep.

“Seafloor mining is a major game changer in the global mining industry,” Nautilus CEO Mike Johnston told me. “There are an enormous number of high grade deposits on the seafloor. Seafloor massive sulphide systems, such as at Solwara-1, exist all over the world along hydrothermal vents which are extremely rich in minerals such as copper, gold, silver and zinc.”

Johnston is hinting at nothing short of a deep sea gold rush, and he’s far from the first. In fact, the original spree commenced almost exactly half a century ago. The quest to mine the ocean floor began in earnest in 1965, when John L. Mero, a shipyard consultant formerly with UC Berkeley’s Institute of Marine Resources, published Mineral Resources of the Sea. In that volume, Mero wrote that “the sea is a major storehouse for the minerals that serve as the foundations of an industrial society” and claimed riches like nickel, cobalt, and copper lay on the bottom of the ocean in manganese nodules—metal-rich clumps—awaiting extraction in near-limitless supply.

seabed mining dredgeMero proposed dropping a “deep-sea hydraulic dredge” down to depths of 10,000 feet, which would essentially act as “a giant vacuum cleaner designed to gather a thin surficial layer of material.”

Following the publication of Mineral Resources, nations including the United States, France, and Germany set out to explore the deep in search of these clusters of oceanic riches. Over the subsequent decades, nations sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into deep ocean mining, to little avail. A 2000 study published in Science found that a total of $650 million had been invested in the enterprise, much of it before metal prices collapsed during the recession caused by the 1973 oil crisis, and before deep sea scientists realized that Mero’s projections of abundant riches were hopelessly optimistic. For decades, deep sea mining was mostly abandoned, and the dream of scooping riches out of the ocean depths lay idle.

In recent years, however, two trends have converged to help renew interest in the concept: Growing global demand for the recoverable metals, especially copper, has upped the profit potential for deep sea mining. Copper is crucial to modern life; it’s both malleable and a great conductor, so it’s found in consumer electronics, cables, cars, refrigerators and beyond—and its value is exploding as major economies like China and India industrialize. The undersea regions that would play host to the mines bear loads of other minerals essential to modernity, too, including nickel, silver, gold and cobalt.

Meanwhile, new technologies—like remote-operated underwater mining robots—have placed seafloor mining within reach. “Once I got the chance to start looking at the technology back in 2004,” Johnston told me, “it became clear to me that there had been rapid changes, so big that what seemed almost impossible back in the 1970s was now actually pretty simple from an engineering point of view.”

Finally, a better understanding of deep sea geology has spurred new-wave prospectors to shift their focus from the manganese nodules of yore to another target: Sulfide deposits that form near hydrothermal vents.

Nautilus is just one of the outfits hoping to take advantage of the trends pushing deep sea mining closer to reality—both Japan and Korea are exploring the idea and developing tech to mine in their waters, and another private company, Neptune, has staked out some major leases to do the same in the Pacific.

Seafloor massive sulfides. Image: University of Washington

Seafloor massive sulfides. Image: University of Washington

However, as the idea has grown closer to fruition, it’s also attracted its fair share of worry. In 2007, the major journal Science published an article called the “Danger of Deep Sea Mining,” which voiced concerns that the huge, swirling sediment plumes stirred up by underwater mining could disturb habitats, and that the process could have a toxic effect on the water column. It concluded that “Plans for deep-sea mining could pose a serious threat to marine ecosystems.” Meanwhile, one of the most alien and intriguing ecosystems on earth is also a key fixture of the mining operations: Hydrothermal vents.

These hydrothermal vents are found in on seabeds near active volcanoes, like the one that forms the atoll around Solwara-1, and the one that Rabaul sits atop. Some scientists have posited that life itself may have originated near their exhaust, where heated, mineral-rich seawater blasts out of the oceans crust into the stark, cold waters of the deep. But here’s why miners are so interested in them: They are constantly, if very slowly, creating what geologists call seafloor massive sulfides.

“These deposits form at or near the seafloor where circulating hydrothermal fluids driven by magmatic heat are quenched through mixing with bottom waters or pore-waters in near-seafloor lithologies,” the US Geological Survey explains. The deposits occur in broad, flat, lens-like bodies that lay parallel to the volcanic bedding. “Massive sulfide lenses vary widely in shape and size and may be podlike or sheetlike,” the USGS notes.

These deposits are often rich in valuable minerals like copper and gold, and happen to be easier to find, too. Nautilus plans to harvest the spots where these materials accumulate—while avoiding the vents themselves—to bring the minerals to the surface en masse, and, of course, sell them for profit.

“The seafloor massive sulfides are copper-rich, and they have higher copper content than what remains on land in known reserves, so they’re attractive in that sense,” Cindy van Dover tells me. Van Dover is a deep sea scientist with Duke University, and has served as a science advisor for Nautilus—she is not a paid consultant.

Van Dover was recently invited down to Papua New Guinea by TED, the “ideas worth spreading” nonprofit, which had organized a seafaring expedition to tackle ocean issues. She was asked to give a talk about deep sea mining aboard the National Geographic Orion, as it cruised over the tropical waters soon to be worked by Nautilus.

The consummate scientist, Van Dover is methodical and cautious in her thinking about the subject. She’s soft-spoken but easy to smile, has graying, close-cropped hair, and, over the course of our talks aboard the boat, she exuded a quiet ambivalence over the mining question. Which makes sense, because she’s spent her entire three-decade career studying the deep sea ecosystems it threatens to transform.

Hydrothermal vents. Image: NOAA

Hydrothermal vents. Image: NOAA

“I started studying these hydrothermal vents in 1982,” she told me, while the boat’s gently rocking deck churned my stomach. “They were discovered in 1979. So yeah, hearing someone was going to rip them up? Cut them up and destroy them?” she added, shaking her head. Of course she was concerned. “There are animals living at these active hot springs,” she says. “So, we’re really interested in seeing what the impact on those communities will be.” Life that gathers around hydrothermal vents is often surprisingly vibrant; it can include tube worms, sea snails, blind shrimp, and deepwater fish.

Out the window of our cabin on the Orion, pillars of smoke rise in the distance, a product of the region’s slash-and-burn agriculture practices—a constant reminder that Papua New Guinea is poor, and that mineral royalties could go a long way.

Van Dover takes pains to note that Nautilus isn’t about to swiftly and surreptitiously mine an out-of-the-way environment under the cover of darkness. Quite the opposite, she says. The company came to her and asked for her expertise, and has since been unusually transparent and proactive.

“They would ask very direct questions: So what are you concerned about?” she said. “If we take this one site away [ie, destroy Solwara-1], won’t [life] come back?” And that is exactly what Van Dover is concerned about: The ecosystems poised for destruction. Here’s another interesting thing about those habitats, and the animals that live in them—they get destroyed, fairly routinely, already.

“The sites are overrun by volcanic eruptions, at intervals,” van Dover explains. “I think about the East Pacific Rise, [another basin] where the eruptions happen every decade or so, and the animals really are adapted, and within months the animals are coming back in. In a couple years, you can’t even tell there was an eruption.”

Unlike East Pacific Rise, however, Solwara-1 is a longer-lived site, meaning volcanic flows come much less often, and don’t destroy the habitats on the seafloor as regularly. These are the creatures that risk getting wiped out by Nautilus, too. At Solwara-1, some scientists worry that the animals might not have time to recover. Other scientists point out that this complex ecosystem is simply still poorly understood—we might have little idea what to expect if they’re mined.


Nautilus, meanwhile, says that it would proceed responsibly, and emphasizes the serious economic case for mining.

“Solwara-1, for example, has 7 percent copper and 6 grams to metric tons of gold on average—more than 10 times higher than average grades on land. There is more copper on the seafloor than all known reserves on land,” Nautilus CEO Johnston says. (On land, the average grade of copper ore is below 0.6 percent, and gold yields fell to 1.2 grams to tons of gold in 2014.) “One of the primary determinants in a mine’s profitability is the grade of the resource, and so when you have seafloor grades that are 10 times higher than what’s found terrestrially, that is a major advantage for seafloor mining.”

Furthermore, aside from the fact that the targeted mining grounds lay 5,000 feet below sea level, there are parts of deep sea mining that are actually easier than on-land mining. Hold tight: We’re going to get wonky with some mining jargon for a second.

“The seafloor massive sulfides that Nautilus is interested in are sit proud on the seafloor so they have no soil or sediment overburden—the overburden is water,” van Dover says. Overburden is the layer of rock or soil overlying a mineral deposit, and “sit proud” means, in mining speak, to “sit on top of.” That means there’s no obtrusive layer of land to peel away before you can start collecting your valuables; they’re sitting right there on the surface, ripe for the picking.

Of course, that surface is the ocean floor, thousands of feet below sea level, which means Nautilus will need an elaborate, high-tech system to efficiently extract its prizes. And here’s where things start to get sci-fi.

“The mining itself involves using a surface ship from which remotely operated vehicles are lowered down onto the seafloor, and the material is ground up, and the ore is brought up to the surface, dewatered, and the dewatering fluid, the seawater, is put back down on the seafloor,” Van Dover says. “When the ship’s done mining one place it will move to the next place,” she says, “so there’s no roads, no infrastructure. So there are some good arguments for why, in a relative sense, that the environmental impact is less than what you’d see on land.”

How deep sea mining works, video [except Nautilus left out the bit where they pump the unwanted waste back into the ocean!]

According to its public blueprints, the Nautilus plan involves three separate robotic, remotely-operated vehicles working in tandem to prepare, mine, and collect the minerals from the deep. Each is about 50 feet long, 15 feet wide, and way [sic] up to 340 tons. Built by the English remote vehicle manufacturer SMD, with US heavy machinery maker Caterpillar, together, the fleet is worth $100 million. Each of them will be deployed from a giant ship, the Production Support Vessel, that will float above the mining operation like an oil rig.

First, a robot called the Bulk Cutter will be dispatched to prepare the way. It will be dropped to the Solwara. It will then use its boom-mounted cutting head to dig “benches” in the sea floor for the next wave of robots to work upon. Second comes the Auxilary Cutter, which is larger, and capable of higher cutting capacity, but can only work in the trenches carved by the AC. The rock will be disaggregated on the seafloor by the continuous cutting of both massive machines, Nautilus explains on the company website, vehicles it says are “not unlike coal or other bulk continuous mining machines on land.”

After the material has been extracted, the Collecting Machine is sent in. That machine “will collect the cut material by drawing it in as seawater slurry with internal pumps and push it through a flexible pipe to the riser and lifting system,” which will in turn pump that slurry to the surface. Onboard, the slurry is dewatered and the desirable solids are stored in the hull, where they await transport from yet another vessel.

nautilus ship

Each of these robots can be remotely operated from above the surface, and are built to withstand the immense pressure of the deep. But as Nautilus notes, they’re mostly adapted variations of extraction tech currently used on land to clear land away for coal and ore. Just underwater—deep, deep underwater—and with robots.

All told, it’s a complex, high-tech, and high-risk undertaking. The process is carried out in an extreme environment, and if those robots break down, repairs will be costly, as sending down a submersible to such depths would no doubt pose a challenge. And an accident, in such a high-stakes situation, stands not just to pollute the local environment.

As such, Nautilus has made a lot of people nervous.

rio banner seabed mining

Local protests against the mine have been rising up in Rabaul, led by concerned New Guineans, van Dover tells me. As we’re driving through the city’s ash-pocked roads in a bus, she asks a local tour guide if she’s seen the protests.

“Oh yes,” the woman mumbles, and looks out the window. A bit later, she told me that many of the locals “are unhappy” but didn’t want to elaborate; she seemed nervous about casting Rabaul in a negative light. Tourism collapsed here following the eruption, and it appeared that foreigners were still a relatively uncommon sight on the island. Wherever we drove, people would smile, wave, even sometimes call out at the sight of us.

Though Nautilus has yet to attract the international-scale attention of other trailblazing extraction projects, it’s already plenty divisive. Locals may be concerned about foreign operations entering PNG waters and the threat to its environment, but environmentalists worldwide are beginning to organize around the issue, too. Protests against the Solwara-1 have already been amplified by a nascent global movement seeking to halt deepwater mining outright.

One opponent of the project is Richard Steiner, a marine conservation biologist who formerly taught with the University of Alaska. Steiner has studied marine disasters ever since the Exxon Valdez unfolded in his backyard. I first met him years ago: He was one of the first experts to arrive on the scene of the BP spill in 2010, where he helped monitor and analyze the fallout of the disaster.

Today he spearheads a nonprofit called Oasis Earth, and lends his expertise to various conservation efforts. The Deep Sea Mining Campaign, which he supports, was organized to slow the drive towards mining the deep, and, in particular, its highest-profile poster project.

“The idea of destroying the biological communities at the Solwara-1 hydrothermal vent system is contrary to everything marine conservation stands for,” Steiner tells me in an email. “Mining will destroy a deep sea biological community that isn’t even well understood scientifically, and will likely cause extinctions of species that have yet to be identified.”

“That alone is an ethical line we cannot condone,” he adds. “It will cause severe and long lasting impacts to this vent field, and for minerals we simply don’t need (particularly gold). This project is a spectacularly bad idea.”

The full impact the project will have on the deep sea environment is difficult to discern. Nautilus commissioned a US environmental consulting nonprofit, Earth Economics, to carry out an environmental assessment of Solwara, which cast it in relatively favorable light. But Steiner and other critics have called its subsequent report misleading, and charged that it fails to take into account myriad ecosystem services and marine life vulnerabilities.

Nautilus, of course, insists that its plans are not only safe, but even safer than the alternative. On-land mines are major polluters; leaching and runoff can contaminate watersheds and soil, create sinkholes, and encourage logging and development. They can endanger the health of those living nearby. With deep water mining, that’s less of a problem.

Auxiliary cutter. Image: Nautilus

Auxiliary cutter. Image: Nautilus

“There’s no society—there’s no civilization, no human beings living on the seafloor, obviously,” van Dover says. “So that makes it a little bit simpler in terms of the societal impacts, unlike on land, where people are involved.”

Still, conservationists argue there are other ways to obtain copper without succumbing to the deep.

“Deep sea mining proponents seldom mention the vast resources still available on land, or the need to dramatically increase the efficiency of metal use in the global economy, cradle-to-cradle design, and landfill mining,” Steiner tells me. “We have to break the ‘economy of waste’—mining raw minerals, using them once or twice, discarding them, thus creating more demand for mining.”

The biggest question, of course, isn’t just the dangers of Solwara-1. It’s whether this project may kickstart a wider industry, in places not as thoroughly vetted. “Korea and Japan are both active, a company called Neptune is also an active player right now,” van Dover says.

Indeed, in recent years, Korea has successfully tested a deep sea mining robot, and Japan has approved leasing rights in its waters for seafloor mineral exploration. A lot of eyes will be on Nautilus.

Meanwhile, construction on its hulking Production Support Vessel, the ship that will serve as the above-sea command center, has begun on schedule. In October 2015, Nautilus CEO Johnston celebrated the milestone by saying that “Our objective remains to develop the world’s first commercial high grade seafloor copper-gold project and launch the deep water seafloor resource production industry,” he said. “With the eyes of the world waiting to see the dawn of this new industry, we look forward to taking delivery of the vessel in December 2017 to enable us to commence our seafloor operations in Q1 2018.” He reaffirmed the same to me.

“The seafloor production tools and the riser and lifting system, including the subsea lift pump, are complete or are nearing completion,” Johnston told me. “The auxiliary cutter, bulk cutter and collecting machine are complete and have undergone factory acceptance testing with wet testing to commence in the first half of 2016.”

Nautilus released images of the finished machines recently, and earned a small but muted round of press, which shared the photos of the impressive-looking deep sea rovers.

“The final component of the seafloor production system is the vessel, which represents the critical path to production. Steel cutting for the vessel has begun and we are confident of its delivery at the end of 2017,” he said. The rest of the onboard equipment is complete, too, he added.

So the robotic drills are set to drop. Even if Nautilus has taken every conceivable step to promote good practices within its operation, to understand the ecosystem it will be exploiting, and to communicate with concerned parties, questions remain. It may seem a utopian demand for Steiner and his peers to ask that we attempt to live sustainably with the minerals currently in circulation instead of drawing them out of the sea, but we’re also on the precipice of a bold precedent. Few will likely advocate for the deep once the mining begins.

“I really do think we need to understand what we might lose,” van Dover says. “The cumulative impacts are what’s really hard. Solwara-1, yes, go ahead and mine S-1, and let’s see what happens. But what about the next one? What’s the tipping point? How many of these sites could you destroy? And at what tempo, before it doesn’t come back? I think S-1 would come back if nothing else is touched. If you touch something else in that basin, how much is too much? Two? I don’t know.”

Van Dover glances out the window of our cabin.

“Can it be environmentally sustainable? Yes. But will it be? I’m not so optimistic.”

1 Comment

Filed under Environmental impact, Human rights, Papua New Guinea