Seabed mining: 3 days to have your say

By Sophie Barclay

Black iron sand.
Black iron sand.

Community/politics: Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd (TTR), a foreign-owned company which aims to be the top iron sands company globally by 2025, has lodged an application to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to mine the seabed for iron sand off the coast of Patea, South Taranaki.

The consent, which is currently open for public submission, would allow for the mining of 65 square kilometres for a period of 20 years. It is the first application under the new Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) legislation which was brought into law in June 2013.

According to the EPA, the company aims to extract a maximum of 50 million tonnes of the seabed each year in depths ranging from 19 to 42 metres. The proposal area covers 65.76 square kilometres of seabed between 22 to 36 kilometres offshore of Patea.

Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) are fighting to halt the consent, believing that once one seabed mining operation is allowed on the west coast, many more will follow.

KASM chairman Phil McCabe says he is concerned about the lack of information available on the potential impacts of seabed mining on marine life.

Speaking to Element last year, Otago University's Associate Professor of Zoology, Dr Liz Slooten, said that it could take decades for the seabed ecological system to recover from seabed mining damage. She also said that soft-bodied creatures, such as worms and tiny fish, are more likely to get killed, which could have wider consequences. "Some fish species are going to scavenge in this environment, so they wouldn't be affected, but others won't be able to adapt. So there will be changes in the fish life, which in turn will limit food for the Maui's."

It is also likely that seabed mining will disturb the critically endangered Maui's dolphin, of which just 55 adults remain over the age of one year.

McCabe also questioned the economic benefit to New Zealand, saying that the project would provide few jobs.

TTR, which was established in 2007 to examine the iron sand deposits of the west coast, is funded by both international and New Zealand investment. Six of the eight company directors are from overseas.

Speaking to the Wanganui Chronicle, representatives from local tribes Ngati Ruanui and Nga Rauru, were also dubious.

"Until Nga Rauru has been through its own scientific and maatauranga research processes to be fully informed of what this means in our tribal domain we do not welcome mining and will maintain our stance until all the impacts have been fully considered," said Nga Rauru kaiwhakahaere Esther Tinirua.

Conversely, TRR says they have consulted widely and looked into the major impacts from the mining operation, stating that the operation will have little impact. The company has also implemented a voluntary exclusion zone which extends for two nautical miles in order to lessen the impact on marine life and beaches.

EPA Chief executive Rob Forlong says that they need to ensure that natural resources in the exclusive economic zone are managed sustainably and has selected a group of independent experts to help with the application including policy specialist Greg Hill, co-founding director of Rogers Adams Petroleum Consultants, Brett Rogers, William Kapea and lawyer Stephen Christensen.

Forlong is encouraging individuals to submit on the issue. "In order to make the best decision, the committee needs to be aware of as much relevant information as possible. We want to hear how a proposal might affect people, communities and the environment. We're looking for information that may affect the outcome of a decision, or on what conditions could be imposed if an application was approved."

What's in the sand?
Iron sand is a type of iron ore which was deposited along the west coast following the huge volcanic explosions in Taupo and erosion of volcanic rocks from western Taranaki. Within the iron ore deposits are three key minerals, magnetite, which has magnetic properties and is used to make steel, titanium oxide, a corrosion-resistant metal used in the construction of high tech alloys and vanadium oxide. The iron sand will be processed aboard a vessel and then exported.

How do they get the sand out?
Sand is mined by machines that crawl along the bottom of the ocean, sucking up sand to the deck of a processing ship where iron ore particles are separated out. The remaining sand is dumped back into the water, settling in areas where the iron ore has already been extracted. This part of the operation is expected to create plumes of sediment and kill bottom-dwelling sea life like tube worms, however the mining company believes the impacts would be minimal and populations would recover quickly.

TTR hopes to secure a reliable supply of low-cost iron ore for steel plants in China and Russia.

Have your say
Public notification for TTR's application kicked off on the 21st of November and submissions will be accepted until 5.00 pm on the 19th of December.

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