Heather Dunmore | Business Day Live | October 10, 2016
PHOSPHATE mining of the seabed, known as bulk marine sediment mining, has never been done and is a major concern for leading marine scientists worldwide. SA is about to become the testing ground.
Despite objections, three rights have been granted by the Department of Mineral Resources to prospect for marine phosphates, predominantly used for fertiliser.
This extremely destructive form of mining requires dredging up the top 3m of the seabed, destroying critical, delicate and insufficiently understood sea life in its wake.
“Two prospecting rights were granted in 2012 and one in 2014; the three extend over 150,000km² or 10% of SA’s marine environment, known as our exclusive economic zone,” says Saul Roux, a legal campaigner for the Cape Town-based nonprofit Centre for Environmental Rights.
Roux has been appointed as part of a WWF Nedbank Green Trust project called Safeguarding Our Seabed, which has among its objectives ensuring a moratorium on bulk marine sediment mining, which he describes as “the height of irresponsibility”.
He has a master’s degree in biodiversity and conservation and is completing his PhD.
“There is already immense pressure on our oceans, with 98% of our exclusive economic zone leased for offshore oil and gas exploration or production, and only 0.4% officially protected,” says Roux.
“This is considerably below our commitment of 10% according to the Convention of Biological Diversity, of which we are signatories.”
The marine phosphate prospecting rights overlap with SA’s major fishing grounds, its critically endangered seabed and nine proposed protected areas.
The benthic zone — the ecological region at the seabed or sediment level, and the sub-surface layers — are highly productive ecosystems that constitute the building blocks of larger marine systems where many species breed, spawn and feed.
The prospecting rights extend offshore from the northern reaches of the West Coast, down to Cape Town and up to Mossel Bay. The areas are located between 200m and 2,000m depth contours, with the shallowest at 5m.
‘We are highly concerned about the type of technology used for bulk marine sediment mining, which is similar to strip-mining the sea floor, with giant dredge vessels scooping up a 3m layer from the seabed and causing the direct destruction of seabed habitats,” says Roux.
The dredging also releases hazardous substances that are normally locked into the seabed, including radioactive materials, methane, heavy metals and hydrogen sulphide. This can destroy wildlife and cause many commercial fish stocks including hake, to be not fit for consumption.
Roux says after the sediment layer is scooped up, it is suctioned on board a vessel in which the larger phosphate-bearing sediment is separated. Significant quantities of freshwater are required for this.
The excess water and fine particulates are poured back into the ocean, creating a giant sediment plume that buries and smothers seabed ecosystems and disturbs the marine environment by affecting water quality, photosynthesis and plankton.
The noise from the mining process will also affect and potentially damage marine mammals. Research from across the world indicates that the impacts of the dredging are potentially irreversible.
Three private companies have acquired the three prospecting rights, each about 50,000km².
South African companies Green Flash Trading 251 and Green Flash Trading 257 each acquired a right. The two companies are virtually identical, seemingly set up separately to create the impression that the owners do not have a monopoly. They have no experience in marine mining and it appears they were established solely for marine phosphate prospecting.
Diamond Fields International, a Canadian mining company with marine exploration and mining rights in other jurisdictions, also has a right to prospect SA’s coast.
“These rights were granted by regional managers with no experience of dealing with offshore applications of this kind. Our existing mining laws are wholly inadequate for dealing with seabed mining,” says Roux.
“The current Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act does not deal with offshore mining and there is no capacity for compliance monitoring and enforcement or to properly assess applications in terms of environmental and socioeconomic impact,” he says.
“They granted the rights without sufficient knowledge of how marine ecosystems work and despite the fact that they overlap with massive fishing grounds and critically endangered ecosystems.”
Roux says that in 2013, when the Centre for Environmental Rights applied for access to the information and the policy documents on seabed mining that guided the department’s decision to grant the exploration rights, access was denied.
There was no response to an appeal against the denial.
Other countries facing marine phosphate-mining applications have either denied them or placed a moratorium or permanent ban on bulk marine sediment mining. In Australia, the government in the Northern Territory imposed a moratorium three years ago, while further environmental and risk assessments are conducted. Namibia placed a moratorium on marine phosphate mining in 2013.
In 2014, New Zealand denied applications for marine phosphate mining while in 2016 Mexico’s federal environmental authority denied a licence for the Don Diego marine phosphate mining project.
“With WWF Nedbank Green Trust funding, which came into effect in 2015, we are now working towards securing a moratorium on bulk marine sediment mining in SA through the Safeguard Our Seabed coalition, which we helped to establish,” says Roux.
This includes 11 member organisations including commercial and small-scale fishing, organised labour, environmental and environmental justice organisations.
The coalition has been engaging with stakeholders in Namibia and other countries that confront similar seabed mining proposals.
In March last year, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, in partnership with the Department of Mineral Resources, the International Seabed Authority and the South African Council for Geoscience hosted a seminar on seabed mining.
Mineral Resources Deputy Minister Godfrey Oliphant told the seminar that “the world demand for minerals continues to increase and some terrestrial resources are becoming depleted”.
He added that “African countries had to share in the potential benefits arising from seabed mineral exploitation”.