Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Iron sands mining hearing: a quick glance at the concerns

Thousands of submissions have been made against a company's application to mine an area of Taranaki seabed. Jamie Morton looked at who is worried about what.

The Japanese-owned bulk iron sand carrier the Taharoa Express anchored off the coast of the North Island of New Zealand.
The Japanese-owned bulk iron sand carrier the Taharoa Express anchored off the coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

Fishing industry giants Sanford and Talley's Group are among thousands of opponents to a company's bid to mine a large block of sea floor off the South Taranaki coast.

The companies, in a joint statement with other major industry bodies, said they were worried about the effects that Trans Tasman Resource's proposed iron sands mining project could have on the environment and their fishing operations.

Hearings on TTR's application to the Environmental Protection Authority began in Wellington this week and are scheduled to run through to early May.

The company is seeking consent from the Environmental Protection Authority to mine an area of exclusive economic zone seabed in the South Taranaki Bight for iron-rich sand particles.

The marine consent application is for a project area of 65.76 km2 in the exclusive economic zone, approximately 22.4 to 36 km off the coast of Patea, in water depths of 20-45 metres.

The mining would be done by remote-controlled 12m-long, 350-tonne "crawler" machines, travelling along the seafloor pumping sand to a processing ship above.
Once iron ore particles were separated magnetically, the sand would be deposited on areas already worked over.

Any life on the seafloor, such as tubeworms, would be destroyed as the mining progressed 300sqm block by block, but the company believed the areas would soon be repopulated.

The company proposes to extract up to 50 million tonnes of sediment per year and process it aboard an integrated mining vessel, with around five million tonnes of iron ore concentrate to be exported per year.

TTR had spent more than $50 million on the project, and estimated that the project would generate an extra $147 million in exports for New Zealand.

The remaining sediment would be re-deposited on the seafloor in a "controlled manner", usually backfilling previous mined areas, which will be typically five metres deep.

But fishing industry groups are worried about how the operation would affect fisheries in the area.

"Put simply, submitters are concerned about the potential for immediate and cumulative adverse effects caused by the mining and if consent is granted, the measures proposed by TTR to manage and mitigate these effects are too limited," representative Peter Dawson told the hearing committee.

He was speaking on behalf of the companies, Fisheries Inshore New Zealand, the New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen, and others.

Sanford has said it could be potentially exposed to up to $10 million in risk, and the operation could affect its economic wellbeing, diminish the value of its quota assets and reduce its access to the public water space.

Coast off Patea were seabed iron sand mining may take place. Photo / APN
Coast off Patea were seabed iron sand mining may take place. Photo / APN

More than 2000 submitters - around half of the 99.5 per cent of submitters in opposition to the application - have asked for the hearings committee to hear their views.

Individual submitters have made up 99 per cent of the total 4,702 submissions, the others a mix of businesses, iwi and hapu groups, councils and Government organisations, and groups and societies.

Most of those in full opposition cited effects on the marine and coastal environment, local and regional businesses, recreation, marine mammals, water quality, health, New Zealand's "clean and green brand" and its tourism and the agriculture market.

There are also concerns over specific species - including the Maui's dolphin, killer whale, the blue whale and the southern right whale.

Contrary to the worries, TTR maintains that impacts on the environment would be minimal, with commissioned studies finding little impact on factors such as waves, surf breaks, fishing, fish life and marine mammals.

"TTR's submission is that all effects associated with the project are acceptable and not of such significance that the substantial benefits associated with this project should be rejected," company representative Hugh Rennie QC told the hearings.

The project had been modelled and assessed, and then reported in the evidence, on a worst case basis, he said.

Mr Rennie said no rare or vulnerable ecosystems or habitats of threatened species had been identified as being potentially affected by the TTR Project.

This was supported by consultants SKM in a peer review report noting the project area and adjacent habitats was not known to provide habitat for any threatened species of benthic fauna, nor contain threatened marine mammals.

The Ministry of Primary Industries has also submitted that effects on fishing would be "negligible or non-existent".

Of 22 submissions which didn't seek for the EPA to decline the proposal, one third sought for it to be granted - the rest largely agreed it should be approved, but with conditions.

The Herald looked at the key concerns throughout the submissions.


Environment and Conservation

The proposal's perceived impact on the environment was the common thread through nearly all submissions, according an EPA analysis.

Submitters claimed the proposal might affect non-renewable sand resources that supplied West Coast beaches up to Cape Reinga, and could also exacerbate coastal erosion both up and downstream from where any mining takes place.

They were concerned that modification of the seafloor could modify waves and currents.
Adverse impacts to migratory and resident mammal species - including blues whales, southern right whales, orca, plus endangered Maui and Hector's dolphins - resulting from subsurface noise, light from the operation and impacts on the food chain.

Submissions highlighted unnecessary pressure on marine and sought further information on existing foraging and migration patterns of marine mammals and the effects of the operation.

They cited threats to the seabed and reef ecology, including mussels, worms and crustaceans, which provided a healthy fishery resource.

Submitters feared the suction dredging crawler would remove the entire top surface of the seabed and sedimentation could affect reefs and banks, which would have a high potential for devastating impacts on reef and sediment surface feeding fauna, and animals that feed on them.

They said the North and South Traps, considered outstanding marine features, and Graham Banks together with other rocky outcrops with high benthic diversity would be within the influence of the sediment plume.

There were also concerns that inadequate information supports the assessment of cumulative and long term impact effects on benthic invertebrates, phytoplankton, fish stocks and cetaceans.

In 99 per cent of cases, submitters raised worries over the impact of fine sediment plumes, created by mining and dumping, on light penetration and phytoplankton and zooplankton, as well as smothering seabed and reef ecology, all affecting the food web.

There were fears the dispersal of discharged sediment would cover feeding grounds of crayfish and other fish species, along with concerns that long-term recovery of the seafloor could take decades.

On the sea surface, submitters were concerned about how noise and light from the operation would affect sea birds.

The Environment and Conservation Organisations of New Zealand (ECO) - an alliance of 53 groups - argued the activity was contrary to the purpose and principles of the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012.

ECO said the company had "failed to give adequate considerations to the uncertainties in the impact of the operation, given its novel and untried nature".

The group claimed there was a range of threatened species that would likely be affected, including blue whales, right whales and Maui's dolphins.

The Environmental Defence Society submitted that the environmental effects of the sediment discharge plume, the effects on marine mammals and the monitoring regime was not "adequately defined or acceptable".

The society added there was no environmental compensation for unavoidable adverse effects, and the conditions that should be applied to any consent, if approved, was unacceptable.

The Sustainability Council advocated for "performance bonds" to save any costs falling on taxpayers and "incentivise" the company to meet consent conditions.

The company should also be liable for any damage to the environment beyond what was permitted under its consent, while the economic benefits directly to New Zealand should also be closely assessed, the council said.


Fishing

Major players in the fishing industry have come out alongside fishing groups against the proposal.

EPA analysts cited the impact on commercial, recreational and customary fisheries from noise, light and seafloor disturbance among the main reasons for objections.

Submitters were concerned that disturbance of the seafloor may mobilise previously settled pollutants, such as heavy metals that could bio-accumulate in fish species.

There was concern for fish stocks for both commercial and recreational fishing, with existing fishing rights needing to be taken into account.

The fears weren't limited to fish life in the ocean - submitters claimed there wasn't enough evidence about potential effects on freshwater fisheries such as tuna (eels) and whitebait that use the coastal environment for part of their lifecycle.

Sector group Fisheries Inshore New Zealand (FINZ) asked for more details on effects from the mining on local fish stocks, on the surrounding marine environment as it related to fishing.

FINZ said there was a "high probability" the proposed mining would adversely affect the existing fishing rights of the west coast inshore fishing fleet.

"Where vessels catch fish and how they transit through the area will more than likely have to change to the detriment of our members."

The New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen opposed the application for similar reasons, and also asked for more analysis to allay fears of rights holders.

"There is too much uncertainty yet about adverse effects and they come in the form of potential decreases in catch rights, exclusion zones and down-stream environmental impacts."

Talley's Group, the country's largest privately owned fishing company, said the EPA "must reject" the application.

Talley's said there was "major uncertainty" about the effect of sedimentation on the benthic habitat - and no conclusion drawn as to what impact that might have on productive food sources for local fish stocks.

Fishing giant Sanford was meanwhile concerned about negative effects on its wild harvest fishing grounds and aquaculture farms due to changes in sediment levels in the water column.

The company did not consider that TTR had had "sufficient regard to the environmental consequences that could result as a consequence of their proposed activity on our fishing and aquaculture businesses".

Sanford said it could be potentially exposed to major risk - between $1 million and $10 million - and that the operation could affect its economic wellbeing, diminish the value of its quota assets and reduce its access to the public water space.

The New Zealand Sport Fishing Council raised concerns with the "enormous scale" of the proposal for a process that had "not been used or understood in the context of the New Zealand continental shelf".

The council was worried about the precedent that would be set with any granting of a licence to mine the seabed, particularly in respect of environmental standards that applied.

The New Zealand Recreational Fishing Council meanwhile said it did not see seabed mining being compatible with the ongoing health of a snapper fishery it had "worked hard" to rebuild.


Recreation issues

Submitters voiced concerns over the potential effects in commercially and recreationally valuable marine areas, surf breaks, and fishing.

They were worried there the operation would also pose problems with diving, whitebaiting, food gathering and kite surfing, and flow-on "social effects" on coastal residents had not been addressed.

Surfing Taranaki said there should be "zero tolerance" to effects on coastal erosion, or that which modified the sea floor and altered the height, energy, direction of swell and waves that headed into the Taranaki Bight.

The group further said there should be no tolerance to any plumes that may affect water quality along the coast.

"We are also concerned that the communities and settlements which are most exposed to any risks associated with the mining, however slight these risks may be deemed to be, will not receive any direct economic benefits or employment opportunities from this project."

The New Plymouth Sportfishing and Underwater Club also opposed the application on the grounds TTR had not provided enough information, and described the scale of the proposal as "staggering".

"Removing 50 million cubic metres of seabed and bringing it to the surface, screening and washing and then dumping the overburden in a highly mobile state close to the sea floor is an enormous engineering challenge."

The Patea and District Boating Club said fishermen's GPS finders had shown there were many great fishing spots within the mining area, and believed any mining would have a "major impact" on its ecosystem and environment.


Iwi and Maori concerns

The four iwi based near the mining area - Taranaki, Nga Ruahine, Ngati Ruanui and Nga Rauru - have voiced opposition to the application.

A key concern was that the proposal did not protect Maori interests, such as fisheries or other taonga, and would affect rights to exercise manaakitanga, or customary practices.

A key concern was that the proposal did not protect Maori interests, such as fisheries or other taonga, and would affect rights to exercise manaakitanga, or customary practices.
Ngaruahine submitted that the proposal was too high a risk and "totally untried".

"On a scale of one to ten, the very real threat to our fisheries, ocean floor, coastal marine area, sits at ten. This is totally unacceptable."

Nga Rauru Kiitahi was concerned the operation would, among other impacts, threaten customary fishing areas and kai moana while increasing the risk to at-risk stocks of customary foods whitebait and lamprey.

"Given that this type of activity has never been conducted in New Zealand waters before and the impacts and effects are fundamentally unknown, we intensely object to being guinea pigs in an experiment that puts our food sources and food chain at risk."

Ngati Ruanui had also submitted in opposition to the application, citing too many questions left unanswered, a "heavy reliance" on theoretical modelling, potential risks to the environment and "minimal benefits that this activity will provide to iwi".


What Government and local authorities said

The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) expected that impacts on primary industries would be limited to fishing, and based on its analysis these were likely to be "negligible or non-existent".

MPI said that in the past five years, commercial fishing activity within the application area had been low, and less than a quarter of it would be inaccessible to commercial fishing at any one time.

Based on the plume modelling, MPI said the impacts of the plume on fishing were likely to be "no more than minor" and despite limited information, the area did not "appear to be of particular importance for spawning or as a habitat for juvenile fish".

MPI however called for an independent review of the company's plume modelling and encouraged the company to engage with iwi and recommended "robust" monitoring of impacts from the operation.

MPI took a neutral stance on the proposal, however the Department of Conservation opposed it in part, asking for further information around the operation's effects, including those on threatened species.

Taranaki Regional Council had also adopted a neutral stance, stating that while the mining was anticipated to bring economic benefit, the application at the time its submission was lodged did "not sufficiently address" actual and potential negative effects.

The council's key areas of concern were the ecological effects of reduced visibility and reduced light penetration as a result of the sediment plume, and those on sensitive rocky outcrop communities including the North and South Traps.

South Taranaki Mayor Ross Dunlop asked for the company to provide a range of assurances and conditions, including that environmental effects were no more than those already flagged, and that the company create a community trust and outline how it would provide employment and other benefits to South Taranaki residents.

"Our community believes it is the owner of these resources and the most at risk from any potential environmental degradation," Mr Dunlop said.

"Any approval of this development must include tangible benefits for our district and we must be satisfied that any risk to the coastal marine environment are minimal at best."


By the numbers

• 4,702 submissions received, of which 99.5 per cent opposed the application either fully or in part.
• 48% of submitters wished to be heard at the hearings.
• 23% of submitters were from the Auckland region, with 18 per cent from Waikato.
• 65.76km2 - the project area for Trans-Tasman Resources iron sands mining application off the South Taranaki coast.
• 50 million - the tonnes of sediment extracted from the seabed each year, with five million tonnes of iron ore concentrate to be exported per year.
• $147 million - the value in extra exports for New Zealand annually, as estimated by TTR.


See a company-written document outlining the plan here:

- NZ Herald

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