Sam Judd

Comment on the environment from nzherald.co.nz columnist Sam Judd

Sam Judd: The battle of the wild west coast

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Photo / Julian Apse
Photo / Julian Apse

It seems that mining companies, meeting heavy opposition in places where people live, have turned to the ocean to make a buck.

Out on the sea, there are no noise complaints and any potentially undesirable effects are not necessarily visible by people who can make a fuss. This makes it easier for mining companies to go by unnoticed in their operations if they go offshore to take minerals.

Last night, an eccentric but determined collection of residents converged on the volunteer fire station at Muriwai Beach, to hear from the lobby group Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM).

Most people who visit the spectacular beaches on the west coast of the North Island would have no idea that there are prospecting and exploration licenses covering the entire stretch from Whanganui to Cape Reinga.

The unique sand that thousands enjoy in popular places like Piha is black because it is full of Titanomagnetite.

Theoretically, it can be ripped from the below the seabed and run through a magnet to separate the iron content, which is then melted down as a raw material for steel manufacturing.

These little black specks of iron, that have poured down from the Taranaki Region's volcanic cones for millions of years, have been described as New Zealand's biggest mineral resource.

Now, companies that are largely owned by overseas investors are lining up to take a crack at this resource below our seabed.

Considering that our Children's Commissioner claims that in 2006/2007, 230,000 New Zealand children were living in poverty, the idea of a resource that could help to alleviate our economic woes with supposedly minimal environmental impact sounds like a great proposal.

What doesn't sound so great, however, is that nobody knows what effects these proposals will actually have on fisheries, the coastline and whether the expected economic benefits will really be worth it.

If just one operation is given a mining permit, KASM says it will move 300-500 million tonnes of sand a year to harvest 30-50 million tonnes of iron ore.

KASM says that the science around impacts to the seabed ecology is definitive - it leaves everything in its wake as a dead zone. What is less clear is whether the movement of sand will affect waves, coastal erosion and ecosystems in other ways.

The extraction is done with factory style ships that suck everything off the seafloor and then mine the materials underneath. Everything they pull up is then sifted over a magnet, huge amounts of tailings are dumped back into the ocean and then the ship heads straight offshore to export the iron ore. These boats won't even stop at any New Zealand ports and their sailors won't stay the night at a motel or buy a Steinlager.

Perhaps there could be a way to raise money from mining without having to rip materials in a potentially harmful fashion using a process that has not yet been proven to have minimal impacts on the environment.

The first company pining for a permit is Trans Tasman Resources, which is 85% foreign owned. The New Zealand central government will reportedly take only 1-5% of the money generated by the operation.

Compare that to the land-based iron sand mining that has been going on since 1969 at Port Waikato. Although it impacts the land at the mine location, this is very different from mining vast areas of the seabed. All of the iron ore is sent directly to the Glenbrook Steel Mill, which employs 1,150 full time staff and 200 semi-permanent contractors.

Perhaps if the iron ore is to be taken from the sea, we first need definitive science on what the current proposals - which have never been done on such a scale worldwide - are going to do to our unique west coast and would it be better to send all the ore to New Zealand steel mills so that more value is created in return for the impact?

The answer to these questions will be decided either by the Crown controlled Environmental Protection Authority or each regional council where proposals are put forward.

It will be up to the people to use the democratic submission process and put forward their case as to whether or not they think iron sand mining from our seabed is a good idea.

What do you think?

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