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Deep-sea mining possibly as damaging as land mining, lawyers say

Deep-sea mining off Papua New Guinea’s coast. Legal and environmental groups warn of danger to the environment and Indigenous groups who live nearby

Environmental and legal groups warn of potential huge effects on Indigenous people and the environment

Ben Doherty | The Guardian | 18 April 2018 

The “new global gold rush” over deep-sea mining holds the same potential pitfalls as previous resource scrambles, with environmental and social impacts ignored and the rights of Indigenous people marginalised, a paper in the Harvard Environmental Law Review has warned.

A framework for deep-sea mining – where polymetallic nodules or hydrothermal vents are mined by machine – was first articulated in the 1960s, on an idea that the seabed floor beyond national jurisdiction was a “common heritage of mankind”.

But exploration has gathered momentum in the past three years, with licences granted off Papua New Guinea’s coastlines, and successful mining off Japan late last year. The International Seabed Authority, which is drawing up a draft mining code, has issued 29 exploration contracts for undersea mining in international waters beyond any national jurisdiction.

Proponents argue deep-sea mining could yield far superior ore to land mining – in silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc – with little, if any, waste product. Different methods exist, but most involve using some form of converted machinery previously used in terrestrial mining to excavate materials from the sea floor, at depths of up to 6,000 metres, then drawing a seawater slurry to ships on the surface. The slurry is then “de-watered” and transferred to another vessel for shipping. Extracted seawater is pumped back down and discharged close to the sea floor.

But environmental and legal groups have urged caution, arguing there are potentially massive – and unknown – ramifications for the environment and for nearby communities, and that the global regulatory framework is not yet drafted, and currently deficient.

“Despite arising in the last half century, the ‘new global gold rush’ of deep-sea mining shares many features with past resource scrambles – including a general disregard for environmental and social impacts, and the marginalisation of Indigenous peoples and their rights,” the paper, written by Julie Hunter and Julian Aguon, from Blue Ocean Law, and Pradeep Singh, from the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, Bremen, argues.

The authors say that knowledge of the deep seabed remains extremely limited.

“The surface of the moon, Mars and even Venus have all been mapped and studied in much greater detail, leading marine scientists to commonly remark that, with respect to the deep sea, ‘We don’t yet know what we need to know.’ ”

Scientific research – including a recent paper in Marine Policy journal – has suggested the deep seabed, and hydrothermal vents in particular, have crucial impacts upon biodiversity and global climate regulations.

Hydrothermal vents act as a sink, sequestering carbon and methane. The mineral-rich vents and their surrounds are also home to animals and organisms including crustaceans, tubeworms, clams, slugs, anemones and fish.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that deep-sea mining poses a grave threat to these vital seabed functions,” the paper says. “Extraction methods would involve the operation of large, remote vehicles on the seafloor to chemically leach or physically cut crust from substrate and/or use highly pressurised water to strip the crust.

“All of these methods would produce large sediment plumes and involve the discharge of waste and tailings back into the ocean, significantly disturbing seafloor environments.”

The Harvard Environmental Law Review article says the exploratory phase of deep-sea mining has already adversely affected Indigenous people in the Pacific. In Tonga, large mining prospecting vessels have disturbed traditional fishing grounds, and in PNG villagers bordering the exploration site in the Bismarck sea have reported high incidence of dead fish washed ashore.

The paper argues for governments globally to reform the international seabed regime to reflect modern developments in law and science, and to protect potentially vulnerable communities.

“They should recognise the risks of operating in an unknown environment, fully embrace the precautionary approach, and protect and conserve the ocean for the benefit of current and future generations,” it says.

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NZ seabed iron sand mining decision reserved

Opponents of seabed iron sand mining gathered more than 6000 signatures on a petition calling for a moratorium on seabed mining. (File photo: Monique Ford)

Stuff | April 19 2018

The finely balanced decision to consent to seabed mining of iron sand might have swung the other way if the decision makers had properly considered some factors, a lawyer says.

Eleven parties have appealed against the consents that were granted last August to Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd.

The appeal hearing in the High Court at Wellington wrapped up on Thursday with Justice Peter Churchman reserving his decision.

The 66 square kilometres off the South Taranaki coast (shown in dark green) where Trans Tasman Resources has applied to mine iron ore.

The final speaker was Davey Salmon, a lawyer for Greenpeace and Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, who said the consent decision had been as finally balanced as it was possible to be.

The Environmental Protection Authority had appointed a four-person decision making committee.

When the committee was deadlocked the chairman had the deciding vote, so even though members of the committee were split two against two, the outcome was that the consents were granted.

Salmon said the committee did not have enough information on which to make its decision, and did not give proper weight to issues that counted against allowing seabed mining.

The committee chairman had a legal obligation to exercise the casting vote favouring caution, and exercise caution where information was lacking, he said.

Trans-Tasman Resources’ lawyer, Justin Smith, QC, said it was unlikely the chairman was meant to change his vote because another committee member disagreed with him.

Even if the judge found against Trans-Tasman Resources on one or more points, it did not mean the decision had to be quashed, Smith said. He asked for a further hearing to discuss the consequences, if the judge intended to allow the appeal.

The lawyer for Māori and fishing interests, Francis Cooke, QC, said the two members who granted the consents had not grappled with a key problem.

The seabed that was to be mined was in the exclusive economic zone off the south Taranaki coast, up to the boundary of the coastal marine area, closer to shore, which came under resource management rules.

Mining would create a significant sediment plume that would spread into the coastal marine area where it was prohibited, Cooke said.

Trans-Tasman Resources said the marine consent and marine discharge consent it was granted were enough to allow mining to proceed, but the opponents said resource consent was also needed.

Regardless of that issue, it was already signalled that whichever way the judge decided, the outcome was likely to be appealed.

The committee granted the 35-year consents subject to conditions, including that two years of monitoring had to take place before Trans-Tasman Resources was allowed to begin mining up to 50 million tonnes of seabed material a year to extract iron ore for export.

A remote-controlled dredge would vacuum sand from the sea bed in depths between about 20 metres and 42m, to a processing ship. The dredging was planned in an area 22 kilometres to 36km offshore from Patea.

It was planned that about 90 per cent of the material would be returned to the sea. Opponents said the noise and sediment plume would cause fish to avoid the area, and would result in long term, if not permanent, damage to the environment and cultural concerns of Māori.

The company said the area was already intensively fished, had gas and oil installations, and was a rugged environment subject to naturally occurring sediment flows from rivers.

Taranaki iwi Ngāti Ruanui, and Trustees of Te Kaahui o Rauru, along with Greenpeace, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, the Taranaki-Whanganui Conservation Board, Cloudy Bay Clams, the Federation of Commercial Fishermen, Southern Inshore Fisheries Management Company, Talleys Group, and Te Ohu Kai Moana Trustee Ltd, appealed against the consents.

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Harvard Environmental Law Review Calls For Precautionary Approach to Seabed Mining

Harvard Environmental Law Review Calls For Precautionary New Legal Standards

Post Courier | April 17, 2018

Today, the Harvard Environmental Law Review published an article entitled, “Broadening Common Heritage: Addressing Gaps in the Deep Sea Mining Regulatory Regime.” The article provides a new perspective on the incipient global industry of seabed mining, heralded as the next extractive frontier despite growing concerns and opposition from civil society, scientific experts, and indigenous groups worldwide.

“Deep sea mining has been framed by proponents as a lucrative mineral windfall with minimal impacts,” says author Julie Hunter, attorney and Clinic Fellow at the University of British Columbia. “This narrative entirely disregards recent scientific information linking the deep seabed with major climate regulation and biodiversity functions. Destroying these ecosystems before more can be learned about them not only risks major health and fisheries impacts – it could completely upend global climate change efforts.”

The article provides a brief overview of the so-called ‘gold-rush’ for seabed minerals, in which countries and companies have scrambled to buy up licenses for seabed exploration covering millions of square kilometers of ocean, before environmental and regulatory standards have even been drafted. With Japan becoming the first country to successfully mine its deep seabed in 2017, and Canadian company Nautilus Minerals scheduled to begin the world’s first commercial operation in Papua New Guinea’s waters in 2019, deep sea mining is rapidly becoming a reality.

However, the risks of operating in an unknown environment less documented than Mars are starting to become apparent. In 2016, a consortium of scientists and oceanographers released a study detailing the critical carbon sequestration functions of deep sea hydrothermal vents and methane seeps. Combined with other studies establishing irreversible impacts from seabed mining, these findings trigger a body of protective environmental and human rights law, including the precautionary principle and the need to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from indigenous and other affected peoples.

“Pacific Islanders have already suffered negative consequences as a result of mere exploratory mining in the region,” says author Julian Aguon, attorney and founder of Blue Ocean Law—a law firm that works throughout the Pacific region to defend and advance the rights of colonized and indigenous peoples. “Our work has documented impacts to fisheries and traditional customs in coastal communities in Papua New Guinea, Tonga and elsewhere, and the disconcerting absence of true and meaningful consultation with affected groups.”

Other acknowledged impacts of deep sea mining include contamination of the water column and fisheries by tailings and heavy metals, species extinction, coral reef acidification, carbon emissions from onshore mineral processing, and increased risk of oil spills and surface accidents, among others.

Given the unique biodiversity, genetic, and biomedical properties of deep sea ecosystems, not to mention their potentially critical role in climate regulation, the so-called “common heritage” of the seabed extends far beyond the value of its minerals. “It would be tragically ironic if, in our rush to obtain minerals for use in green tech and renewable energies, we end up bulldozing the most important climate regulator of our planet,” says Hunter. “That possibility alone merits a cautious approach.”

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Kiwis Against Seabed Mining promises to take case to Supreme Court if necessary

KASM chairwoman Cindy Baxter says the previous government’s support for the iron sands project was “very clear’ to the Environmental Protection Agency. Photo: Pullar-Strecker

Tom Pullar-Strecker | Stuff | April 16 2018

One of the lobby groups fighting a decision to approve iron sands mining off the Taranaki coast says it is prepared to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in August approved an application by miner Trans Tasman Resources (TTR) to dredge a billion tonnes of iron sands from the South Taranaki Bight, in a split decision that swung on committee chairman Alick Shaw’s casting vote.

A total of 11 groups with environmental, fishing and Maori interests are appealing the decision at the High Court in Wellington. They are concerned about issues such as the plume from waste material that will be returned to the seabed.

Some have also warned the project would set a precedent for seabed mining elsewhere in New Zealand waters and beyond. 

Cindy Baxter, chairwoman of Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) – speaking outside the High Court before proceedings began –  said it was very clear the former National government supported the mining venture. 

She believed that had not been lost on the EPA, which is an independent body.

“The Government changed the legislation to make it easier for it to get through and Callaghan Innovation suddenly gave TTR a big grant when it wasn’t even a New Zealand company,” she said.

The 66 square kilometres off the South Taranaki coast (shown in dark green) where Trans Tasman Resources has applied to mine iron ore.

“This is a company that brought 35 per cent of its shares across from Holland three weeks before its application so it could claim it was a Kiwi company.”

Baxter said she couldn’t say whether the EPA was influenced by the former government’s support for the venture. But “it certainly got that message” and the process it had gone through to approve the mining application was flawed, she said.

Even so, two of the commissioners still voted to reject the mining application, issuing a “strongly dissenting opinion”, she noted.

Baxter said she believed the new government was trying to be “hands off” and was waiting for the outcome of the court challenge.

“I think they are letting the legal process go through. They don’t really want to talk to us about it at the moment – although certainly the Green Party does.”   

Baxter said KASM was prepared to take the court challenge as far as it needed to.

“If we have to, we will take it to the Supreme Court. This is a precedent-setting case. 

“It is the first seabed mining application that has been approved in New Zealand and it would open the flood gates for others around the country.” 

Opponents of the Taranaki iron sands project gather outside the High Court. Photo: Pullar-Strecker

TTR has been contacted for comment. It has previously said the Taranaki Iron Sands project would be “a sustainable and world leading development” that would have little environmental effect and directly employ 463 people, generating about $7 million of royalties for the Crown.

Baxter said seabed mining was basically new internationally, though diamond giant De Beers has vacuumed diamonds from 6000 square kilometres of sea floor off the coast of Namibia.

There are proposals to mine a large area about 500 miles south-east of Hawaii called the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone which Japanese scientists are reported to estimate contains up to 100 billion metric tons of rare-earth deposits.

Southern Cross Cable, which has surveyed a route for a new internet cable between New Zealand, Australia and the United States, has been re-surveying its route to avoid that mining zone.

Greenpeace campaigner Michael Smith said the South Taranaki Bight was a “vital ecosystem” that was home to endangered blue whales and Maui dolphins.

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NZ EPA seabed mining court case a fight for the future

Scoop NZ | April 15, 2018

The future of the South Taranaki Bight lies in the hands of the High Court next week, which will hear appeals against the Environmental Protection Authority’s decision to grant a marine consent to Trans-Tasman Resources’ bid to dig up the seabed for its iron ore.

Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM), with Greenpeace, is appealing the decision, alongside six other appellants.

The EPA decision was released in August 2017, a year after Trans-Tasman Resources submitted its application to dig up 50 million tonnes of the seabed a year in a 66 square kilometre section of the South Taranaki Bight – for 35 years. A total of 95% will be discharged, resulting in a large sediment plume, to get five million tonnes a year of iron ore. Of the 13,733 submissions (a record) received by the EPA, all but 147 – one percent – were either opposed to the consent or neutral.

“This is a fight for the future of our precious oceans,” said KASM chair Cindy Baxter. “The outcome of this case will set a precedent for a number of other companies waiting in the wings to mine our seabed, in the South Taranaki Bight and beyond. Trans-Tasman has prospecting permits for at least two more in the Bight, and two others around the country.”

“Our Oceans are in distress, and are facing a crisis of marine biodiversity loss. Our oceans provide us vital services, food and livelihoods, as well as oxygen and carbon sequestration when we have healthy ecosystems,” said Michael Smith, a campaigner with Greenpeace New Zealand.

“The South Taranaki Bight is one such vital ecosystem, home to a population of endangered blue whales and Maui dolphins. Protecting its biodiversity is why this case is so important..”

KASM and Greenpeace are appealing on 12 points of law. Among these is the issue of what is called “adaptive management” whereby an activity like seabed mining is allowed to go ahead, adapting the conditions on which it occurs along the way.

“The EPA has set down 109 conditions, but many are still to be developed, such as the effect of seabed mining on marine mammals and seabirds,” said Cindy Baxter. “We are also raising other issues, such as natural justice, the way economic benefits have been calculated, and the role of the precautionary approach.”

The hearing begins at the High Court in Wellington, 10 am, Monday 16 April 2018 and will last for four days.

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Te Kāhui o Rauru to appeal seabed mining in NZ High Court

Iwi representative group , Te Kāhui o Rauru, will appear in the Wellington High Court to appeal the Environmental Protection Authority’s decision last year allowing Trans Tasman Resources Ltd to mine the Taranaki seabed.

Tema Hemi | Maori Television | 15 April 2018

West Coast Taranaki has been the interest of mining companies for decades. But local iwi Ngaa Rauru is making a final stand to stop mining along their coastline. 

Iwi representative group , Te Kāhui o Rauru, will appear in the Wellington High Court to appeal the Environmental Protection Authority’s decision last year allowing Trans Tasman Resources Ltd to mine the Taranaki seabed. 

The mining operation involves the excavation of 50 million tonnes of seabed per year for 35 years over an area of 65 square kilometres, down to 11 metres deep. 

CEO of Te Kāhui o Rauru, Anne-Marie Broughton, says, “We want a moratorium on seabed mining because there is just too many unknowns about this operation”. 

Broughton says the carnage and impacts will be immense. 

“The damage to the environment ranges from the very tinniest of ocean creatures to the largest. So if we think about the very tinniest, like the plankton and the krill, in our environment. they actually feed the food chain right up to the largest creatures in our marine life like the Blue Whale.” 

Despite the governments announcement to end offshore oil exploration in New Zealand,  concerns for Taranaki continue. 

Mike Smith of Green Peace says, “”It’s certainly not fair on Taranaki who continue to have their lands fracked, their health put at risk to see their lands desecrated.”

National Party MP Todd Muller told Te Kāea the announcement is a step backwards especially for Taranaki. He says, “You watch, there will be a retrenchment in that industry and as some media have already reported this is the long-term death of Taranaki. It’s unacceptable when the opportunity is there for New Zealand to participate,” 

But Ngaa Rauru iwi says the environmental impacts outweighs the employment opportunities. 

Ngaa Rauru Kiitahi will join alongside other appeal parties from tomorrow. Including representatives of the Taranaki-Whanganui Conservation Board, Te Ohu Kaimoana and Ngaati Ruanui. 

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Strong opinions on deep-sea mining in Cook Islands

OML repesentatives check out a potential exploration vessel

Liam Ratana | Cook Island News | April 06, 2018

Cook Islanders have been quick to air their opinions about deep-sea mining, following the recent visit to this country of Ocean Minerals Ltd. (OML)

Two weeks ago, the Cook Islands took a step towards becoming the first in the world to mine deep-sea nodules, with six representatives from OML visiting the islands of Aitutaki and Rarotonga to explore the viability of harvesting nodules.

CINews shared the story last Wednesday and have been inundated with comments since. Most of those who commented had concerns regarding the environmental impacts that deep-sea mining may have in the Cook Islands.

One comment read “…all mining causes destruction”, while another said, “they (OML) will get their riches and leave us with the crumbs, the mess, and no fish for future Cook Islanders”.

Yet another commenter said, “our entire ecosystem will be destroyed…no matter how many thousands of miles the seabed mining will be away from us, it will destroy us”.

Many people also made mention of the Republic of Nauru, which is a tiny island nation that was once considered to be the wealthiest in the world.

Nauru once had rich deposits of phosphate which were mined until there were no more commercially viable deposits left. The Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust was initially established to ensure the ongoing prosperity of Nauru and its people after phosphate mining had ceased. However, due to mismanagement, the great wealth of the tiny pacific nation was squandered away.

Even though there was strong opposition on social media to the idea of deep-sea mining in the Cook Islands, there were also some who enthusiastically supported it.

Said one commentator: “People are being hypothetical about the risk to this exploratory initiative, based on historical experiences that have happened in other mining sites.

“If our legislation and regulations are based on New Zealand’s and Norway’s experiences…then there is hope that proper procedures will be followed to minimise risk and environmental impacts…take the right steps to reduce, eliminate, and/or minimise any impact to the environment”.

Paul Lynch, who has led the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority since 2012, claims that deep-sea mining will not impact islands, villages, and lifestyles here. He says it could help to diversify the Cook Islands’ small economy.

Lynch says that “minerals could help to provide new revenue streams and jobs” and that people “appreciate the Cook Islands steady approach”.

“A crucial part of deep-sea mining is sensible exploration and research”.

Lynch says that this involves “gathering good baseline deep-sea environmental data and managing it well…facts and data that can help our Cook Islands communities and decision-makers make informed decisions.

“Then we can decide whether or not to, or how we want to develop our own natural resources, based on our own facts and thinking…”

Lynch says that laws are being drafted now, “decades before revenue is anticipated so if there are no more seabed minerals left in the future, a well-managed national sovereign wealth savings fund” will ensure that the people of the Cook Islands will be cared for.

“We need to protect all national revenue from deep-sea mining” he says.

One commenter said that they would “welcome the day when we can bring up the first load of nodules from the depths (of the ocean) without negatively impacting our environment and finally start our journey to true financial independence. The focus then will be on managing our wealth”.

Another commenter said, “…that’s why the seabed (minerals) authority was established. They have legislation, policies, guidelines, and regulations in place to safeguard the country from any potential risks…I’m sure the seabed (minerals) authority is also mindful of the challenges and risks involved”.

There is little known about the deep-sea environment, especially at a depth of 5000 metres, where the Cook Islands nodules are located. Even less is known about the potential environmental impacts of mining those nodules.

Some reports state that the impacts of deep-sea exploitation will “last forever” and many others say that environmental risks and impacts of deep sea mining would be “enormous and unavoidable”.

According to one report, the effects could include seabed habitat degradation over vast areas, the extinction of species not yet discovered, reduced habitat complexity, and much more.

However, these are all just educated guesses. The reality is that no one knows what the impacts will be. Research is ongoing and the exploitation of Cook Islands nodules is “at least eight years away from beginning”, according to OML director David Huber. The potential benefits will have to be considered in-light of the potential environmental effects. 

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