Tag Archives: Solwara 1

Study: Seabed mining causes long-lasting ecological damage

Metal-rich nodules can be found in abundance on large swaths of the ocean floor. Photo by National Oceanography Center/University of Southampton

Metal-rich nodules can be found in abundance on large swaths of the ocean floor. Photo by National Oceanography Center/University of Southampton

Brooks Hays | UPI | February 10, 2017

Analysis by scientists at the National Oceanography Center in England suggest deep-sea mining operations will have long-lasting ecological consequences.

Researchers reviewed the available scientific literature on small-scale sea-floor disturbances and found clear and measurable impacts to marine ecosystems lasting decades.

As metals become scarce on land, the mining industry has turned its attention to the deep sea floor, where vast expanses of nodules rest. Nodules are potato-sized rocks featuring significant amounts of high-quality metals like copper, manganese and nickel.

No commercial deep-sea mining operations are yet underway, but the International Seabed Authority has issued several exploratory mining licenses to companies from multiple countries.

Scientists have been conducting sea-floor disturbance experiments since the 1970s. The predictive value of a single experiment is limiting, but by surveying a variety of these experiments, scientists at NOC were able to identify broader patterns.

All of the experiments analyzed by NOC researchers were much smaller than an actual mining operation.

These studies will underestimate the impacts of mining,” researcher wrote in their paper, published in the journal PLOS ONE. “Many would not even represent one month’s work for a full-scale commercial operation, which might last for twenty years.”

The longest experiment included in the survey lasted 26 years. Though the disturbed site showed some evidence of recovery, biodiversity and abundance remained diminished.

Because the deep sea floor is still poorly understood by scientists, researchers say environmental officials must be extra vigilant in regulating deep-sea mining operations.

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Scientists Fear Experimental Seabed Mining

subsea mining equipment

subsea mining equipment

The Maritime Executive | 5 February 2017

Scientists fear that even before one of the last frontiers of exploration, the ocean deep, has been properly studied it will already have been exploited and damaged by commercial deepsea mining looking for rare metal and minerals on the ocean floor.

Around 70 percent of the world’s surface is covered by ocean and more than half of that is designated as international waters. Currently less than 0.05 percent of the ocean floor has been mapped at a level of detail where objects a few meters in size can be discerned. Marine biologists estimate that there are around 750,000 marine species yet to be identified, many of them likely to be found in the deep sea.

The mining industry has been developing technologies to extract metals and minerals at depths of over 500 meters, and it’s expected that commercial mining will start for the first time in 2018 off Papua New Guinea with the Solwara 1 project.

One mining method is to use a conveyor belt system of buckets to bring soil containing metal and mineral deposits from sites on the sea floor up to a mining ship for processing. A second method is to use pipes to hydraulically suck up soil from sites on the sea floor, also to a mining ship for processing.

But before that happens the MIDAS project, which is made up of scientists, industry figures, NGOs and legal experts from 32 organizations across Europe, gathered data to gain a good picture of what damage might be done by mining and so inform regulators of what needs to be put in place to protect the deep sea environment.

MIDAS scientists have released a summary of findings late last year and plan to release more technical papers in 2017. They found that new environmental issues need to be considered, such as the large surface areas affected by nodule mining, the potential risk of submarine landslides through sediment destabilization in gas hydrate extraction or the release of toxic elements through oxidation of minerals during mining.

There is a risk that the mining process will release metal ions into the water column, either in the benthic plume created by mining vehicles or, following dewatering on the surface vessel, in a mid-water plume. Such plumes can potentially travel hundreds of kilometers, carrying potential toxicants with them. Mid-water plumes may impact photosynthetic microalgae or animals within the water column.

Despite considerable sampling and study of the deep sea over the past century, knowledge of species distribution across most spatial and temporal scales is still very poor, say the scientists. Hence, current levels of biogeographic knowledge are not sufficient to make accurate predictions of the consequences of mining.

Currently the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) governs activity on the seabed. UNCLOS states that international waters are the “common heritage of mankind” and that the International Seabed Authority (ISA), based in Jamaica is the body responsible for administering it. The ISA has signed a number of mining deals and is in the process of drawing up a mining code to govern deep-sea mining before 2018.

The MIDAS summary report is available here [pdf]

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‘Urban mining’: Engineers say e-waste richer than ore pulled from the ground

Amit Kumar has been grinding up LEDs at UBC in Vancouver to recover valuable metals. Arlen Redekop

Amit Kumar has been grinding up LEDs at UBC in Vancouver to recover valuable metals. Arlen Redekop

Urban mining is a much better and cleaner alternative to experimental seabed mining. RIP Solwara 1! 

Randy Shore | Vancouver Sun | January 16, 2017

Electronic waste is proving to be a far richer source of valuable metals than any ore pulled from the ground, according to mining engineers at the University of British Columbia.

PhD student Amit Kumar and professor Maria Holuszko have succeeded in “mining” copper and silver from LED lights, and they are certain that rare earth metals such as europium, cerium and lutetium can also be recovered.

Light Emitting Diodes are gaining popularity as a highly efficient alternative to incandescent and fluorescent lights and represent an increasing proportion of e-waste and a potential source of metal pollution, said Holuszko.

“We believe that within three years there will be enough LEDs in the waste stream to make this viable,” said Kumar. “And if we don’t do it, they will all end up in the landfill.”

What makes the LED recycling process tricky is that lights are made of fused composite materials that blend plastics and metals with a variety of other compounds that cannot simply be pulled apart.

But if LEDs are ground up fine enough, the material isn’t much different from a high quality ore, though one with a variety of metals and industrial materials to be recovered.

“We are using techniques like the ones employed by the mining industry, mainly physical processes that exploit the weight, density and conductivity of the metals to separate them from other materials,” said Kumar. “So far we haven’t needed to use any chemicals, so it’s a very clean process.”

The researchers employ gravity, electrostatic separation, and other non-chemical methods to separate metals from each other and from binding materials. 

Processed samples contain up to 65 per cent recoverable copper — far higher than processed ore — along with 4.5 per cent zinc and 1,640 parts per million of silver.

“Eventually, we also hope to use this workflow to find a way to recover gold in significant amounts,” said Holuszko.

Recovering rare earth metals will likely be accomplished with a chemical process, but only the small amount of material that remains after the common metals are removed would need to be treated, said Kumar.

A successful test run of the process with Richmond’s Contact Environmental recovered copper, zinc, lead and silver, according to Holuszko. The next step is to find an industrial partner interested in investing in a real-world pilot program.

“We have a grant from (non-profit innovation funding agency) Mitacs, but it’s not enough without a private partner,” she said.

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Experimental Seabed Mining Project Advances, Papua New Guinea Locals Consider Lawsuit

Concept art of bulk cutter. Image: N.R.Fuller

Concept art of bulk cutter. Image: N.R.Fuller

Free Speech Radio News | January 12, 2017 

The deep seas are some of the most uncharted ecosystems in the world. Scientists say we know more about the surface of the moon than the deep seas. Yet the world’s first commercial deep sea mining operation for gold, copper and silver in the Bismarck Sea could be underway in just a year. But, as Georgia Clark reports, Papua New Guinea locals are considering a lawsuit, calling for greater transparency and fearing the project could cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s few pristine frontiers.

In the next hundred years, humankind is set to face ever more pressing environmental challenges. With climate change already taking hold, scientists say conservation is crucial. But economies with growing populations continue to depend on finite resources, like fossil fuels and minerals, pushing exploration for deposits into new frontiers. And that quest for resources has come to an underwater biosphere off the coast of Papua New Guinea’s New Ireland Province.

“These deep sea hydrothermal vents are some of the most remarkable biological communities ever discovered and they were only very recently discovered in the 1970s,” says marine biologist, professor Richard Steiner, who has been studying the area and the life it sustains. “The rarity of this ecosystem is extraordinary, it could be the most rare ecosystem type in the biosphere of this planet.”

Canadian mining company, Nautilus Minerals, has been developing a plan to extract high-grade deposits of copper, gold, zinc and silver on the seabed near the mineral-rich underwater Hydrothermal Vent Systems. According to their Environmental Impact Statement, remote-controlled seafloor mining devices would collect ore that will be sent to the surface for processing. Known as the Solwara 1 project, the 25-acre underwater site is slated to become the world’s first commercial seabed mine.

But the project has been under fire, with critics arguing that the environmental risks are too high and, more recently, calling on Nautilus to be more transparent.

“For the past four years the deep sea mining campaign and also communities in Papua New Guinea have been calling on the government and Nautilus to release documents around this project,” explains Natalie Lowrey, media coordinator at the Deep Sea Mining campaign. “If they don’t there could be a situation where communities there look at a legal challenge.”

Some Papua New Guinea locals have raised concerns about the government’s 15 percent stake in the project.

“The PNG government is so corrupt that it’s very difficult to monitor and regulate projects like this. Given the situation, it’s a stakeholder and therefore there is a conflict of interest and we don’t think it will carry out the responsibility of regulating and monitoring this project effectively,” says John Chitoa, a coordinator with Bismark Ramu, an NGO that represents Papuans opposed to the project. “To make matters worse, the conservation minister was formerly the mining minister; he was the one who licensed Nautilus.”

Chitoa says Indigenous communities in PNG also worry about how mining operations could disrupt longstanding cultural practices closely linked to the local environment: “The sea is their welfare, their livelihood – it’s the source of food. The people in New Island also use the sea for bathing, cooking. In the past people used to use sea as graveyard as well. In the west coast of New Island, they still practice shark calling.”

FSRN sent multiple interview requests to Nautilus Minerals over a three-week period. A company representative said Nautilus CEO Mike Johnston would be unavailable for comment until after the story’s publication.

In past statements, Nautilus Minerals has expressed confidence that cutting edge technology will allow the company to mine the seabed in an environmentally responsible way. But Professor Steiner, who conducted his own independent study into the proposed mine, says the project warrants extreme caution.

“Scientifically, there’s just too many unknowns about these deep sea vent communities, so we really can’t accurately predict what the impacts will be,” Steiner points out. “But we do know that they will be severe on a local scale and they could actually be severe and long lasting – there could be species extinctions caused just on this 11 hectare site.”

While some environmentalists argue there is insufficient conclusive evidence to give the world’s first commercial deep sea mine the green light, Nautilus argues the benefits of deep sea mines outweigh those of terrestrial mines.

“I think that the one thing Nautilus has done well is that they’ve been very good about collecting scientific information. They’ve been very open about what they’ve found in terms of the biodiversity,” says Professor Elaine Baker, an expert in the sustainable use of marine resources at the University of Sydney. “They’ve have engaged top scientists from around the world to do the environmental impact study, and they’ve taken note of criticism – they’ve actually really progressed the science and our understanding of these organisms by the number of studies that they’ve done.”

Copper density in the Solwara deposit is reputedly several times higher than what is typical in terrestrial mines. It’s copper that Nautilus says will help meet worldwide demand for goods like smartphones and computers. Natalie Lowrey of the Deep Sea Mining campaign says consumers need to consider costs behind the price tag.

“Solwara 1 is gold and copper. We don’t really need any more gold – 80 percent of gold is used for jewelry, it’s not a necessity. Copper, yes, I can understand, copper is used in a lot of things, but these are things that could be recycled,” Lowrey points out. “We could really look at it like the idea of urban mining in the economy is actually cradle to cradle, so actually the way we design our products in the first place that they can last longer but also we’re able to extract the minerals and metals from there in the best way possible.”

While Nautilus has outlined mitigation strategies, such as transplanting sea animals in the path of the mines, with the integrity of their sea life and cultural practices at stake, locals say court action is foreseeable. With operations set to commence in 2018, the clock is ticking.


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MOAs for mining projects set to go before NEC


Post Courier | December 23, 2016

SEVEN of the memorandum of agreements (MOA) for the mining projects in the country have been completed and will be submitted to the National Executive Council (NEC) for approval in January, 2017. This is from the Mineral Resources Authority (MRA) while giving an update on the status of these agreements.

Each of the operating mining projects have in place an MOA that sets out the benefits sharing arrangements between the National Government, the host provincial and local level governments and the immediate mine area landowners. The MOAs are reviewed periodically as agreed by the stakeholders.

Those completed are for the Ramu mine in Madang Province, Simberi (New Ireland), Hidden Valley (Morobe), Ok Tedi (Western Province), Tolokuma (Central) and Sinivit (East New Britain). MRA’s managing director Philip Samar told the Post-Courier that once they have been approved by the NEC, the actual signing ceremony will be held at each of these project sites.

“This is to allow the project stakeholders to witness such an occasion,” Mr Samar said.

Also completed is Woodlark in Milne Bay, which is one of the two new approved mining projects. He said the review process for Porgera, Lihir and Crater Mountain are yet to be completed. The current exercise will continue in 2017 along with the country’s first ever deep sea mine – Solwara-1.

Mr Samar said this will be the first time that any government has submitted more than one revised MOA in the last 10 years.

He said one of the improvements that the MRA is embarking on to improve is administration and transparency of the revised MOAs by making allowances for autonomous parties to administer each of them, and to facilitate annual meetings where the independent auditor presents the implementation scorecards for each of them.

“This way all parties will be held to fully account for the implementation of their commitments on an annual basis,” he said.

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Seabed mining in PNG: environmental experiment, false hope of economic returns


Nautilus Minerals pedalled false hope for experimental seabed mining at the PNG Petroleum and Mining Conference in Sydney. NGOs and civil society in PNG raise serious doubt about the commercial and environmental viability of the Solwara 1 seabed mining project.

Media Release | 14 December 2016

Natalie Lowrey, Deep Sea Mining campaign said, “Despite securing bridge financing with its two biggest shareholders to continue the Solwara 1 project, Nautilus faces significant technological and financial uncertainties. They are yet to demonstrate that seafloor resource development is commercially viable and environmentally sustainable.”

“The Nautilus Annual Information Form [pdf] for the Fiscal Year ending 2015 highlights the potential for equipment damage, mechanical failure and operational failure and it warns that the projected yields and costs for Solwara 1 should be viewed with a low level of confidence.”

According to the Form’s section on risk factors [pdf], Nautilus has not completed and does not intend to complete a preliminary economic assessment, pre-feasibility study or feasibility study before embarking on mining at the Solwara 1 Site. The Form also acknowledges that the impact of any seabed mining operation on the environment will only be determined by monitoring after Solwara 1 has been developed.

“This does nothing to reassure local communities. The proposed Solwara 1 site is right in the middle of our fishing grounds and ocean currents operating at the Solwara 1 site would bring pollutants to our shores,” stated Jonathan Mesulum, from the PNG Alliance of Solwara Warriors.

Christina Tony, from the Bismarck Ramu Group in PNG said, “These admissions formally confirm what community members and activists have asserted for some time, that Nautilus and the PNG Government are using the Bismarck Sea as their testing ground and that Solwara 1 is indeed Experimental Sea Bed Mining”

“The business case for Solwara 1 is extremely weak and is a huge risk for the PNG government. It will not generate revenue, employment or business opportunities for the local communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on the ocean. Our former prime minister and Governor of New Ireland province, Sir Julius Chan, cast his doubts about experimental seabed mining as a serious environmental risk for our seas which are the gardens for our people.”

The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), who control the world’s largest sustainable tuna purse seine fishery, have warned this week that without caution and adherence to the precautionary principle sea bed mining will go down the same track as the tuna fishery- foreign companies over exploiting Pacific Island resources with no tangible benefits delivered to local populations. The National Fisheries Authority in PNG has also expressed its concerns over seabed mining in the country.


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World-first PNG seabed mining project “forges ahead”

Nautilus Minerals' Adam Wright speaks at the PNG petroleum and mining conference in Sydney. (ABC News: Sajithra Nithi)

Nautilus Minerals’ Adam Wright speaks at the PNG petroleum and mining conference in Sydney. (ABC News: Sajithra Nithi)

Sajithra Nithi | ABC News | 10 December 2016

The world’s first project to mine the seabed for minerals is expected to begin operations in Papua New Guinea in early 2019.

Nautilus Minerals is the Canadian company in charge of the Solwara 1 project, which will see copper and gold deposits mined from the seafloor at a depth of 1,600 metres, 30 kilometres off PNG’s New Ireland Province in the Bismarck Sea.

A few months ago, Nautilus reported funding issues for Solwara 1.

Adam Wright, vice-president of PNG operations for Nautilus, said the global oil and iron ore price had an impact on some shareholders, who have now put in a bridging finance facility for the project.

Speaking at a conference about mining in PNG, he said a big incentive for mining the seabed is the higher concentration — or grade — of the metal deposits.

“The grades of the Solwara 1 deposits [are] 7.2 per cent copper. If you look at the average grades of copper in terrestrial copper mines, it’s now less than 0.7 per cent copper,” Mr Wright said.

“Yes, you can still find copper on land, but as grades fall you’re going to have to clear more land … relocate more communities, you’re going to have to store more tailings, you have to dispose of more waste … accessing an ever-decreasing resource with ever-increasing costs.”

Solwara 1 is being developed in a joint venture with state entity Kumul Minerals Holdings.

The plan to mine the seafloor has raised concerns about the possible effects on the environment.

In July, PNG’s former attorney-general Sir Arnold Amet joined the campaign against Solwara 1, calling it a “Papua New Guinea-pig” experiment.

He said the licence was issued even though PNG has no national policy on deep sea mining nor an appropriate legal framework to regulate such operations.

However, Mr Wright from Nautilus said the company submitted an environmental impact study to PNG’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA), which was then independently verified.

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