Trans Tasman Resource will try again in hearings starting this week to get permission to mine iron sands from the ocean floor in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone.
The hearings, which start in Wellington on February 16 and are scheduled to finish on March 20, mark the New Zealand company's second attempt to obtain consents after a decision-making committee (DMC) appointed by the EPA ruled in 2014 that the environmental impacts of the proposal were too difficult to gauge on the evidence available.
The company which has spent around $65 million seeking permission to mine titano-magentite ironsands on the seafloor off the coast of Whanganui, off the west coast of New Zealand's North Island. It chose not to appeal the original DMC decision, preferring to mount a fresh, second bid with additional evidence in front of an entirely new panel.
Phil McCabe, chairman of community-based action group Kiwis Against Seabed Mining opposing the initiative, said his organisation takes issue with seabed mining because "there's guaranteed environmental destruction or degradation." He said the area includes sensitive habitats that are important to marine mammals as well as thriving reefs.
The proposed mining area is outside the 12 mile nautical limit in an area that migratory species move through, and a large undersea desert of ironsands in which there are strong current and limited marine life. Much of the original DMC's rejection of the bid related to the unknowable environmental impacts on the area, given limited research beyond TTR's.
In the initial hearing, much of the DMC's concern related to the way surplus sand that didn't contain iron ore would be returned to the ocean floor. In particular, there were issues about how plumes of sand returning to seafloor would act in the often turbulent waters.
TTR was not immediately available for comment but according to its website, scientific studies show the proposed operations will have no more than a minimal impact on marine mammals present in the area.
KASM's McCabe said the case will be precedent-setting as a unique project globally although he noted there is currently significant investment and momentum aimed at mining the ocean's floors. He said there is much more public opposition to the project this time around, with more than twice as many people attending KASM meetings ahead of the hearings and more than three times the number of submissions as well as involvement from a wider range of institutions.
So far TTR has invested more than $65m to define the resource potential and assess the impact of the South Taranaki Bight iron sands project. McCabe estimates the project would require $1 billion to get it up and running.
TTR says it has invested in further research into the environmental impacts of scooping up some 50 million tonnes of iron sands annually from a relatively barren expanse of seabed some 22-to-36 kilometres off the west coast of the lower North Island in waters between 20-and-42 metres deep. Sand is extracted via a seabed crawler which pumps it aboard a processing vessel where the iron ore is separated magnetically from the sand.
The project aims to export up to five million tonnes of iron ore concentrate annually for up to 35 years, targeting Asian steel mills capable of processing titano-magnetite, a less used alternative and additive to iron ore in steel-making. The remaining de-ored sediment (around 45 million tonnes per year) would be returned to the seabed in the same area from which it was extracted.
The new application contains fresh scientific and other evidence, which TTR stated it has addressed the concerns raised by the DMC and to "address the perceived gaps in the submission."
The hearing will run from February 16 to February 24 in Wellington and then from March 6 to March 9 in New Plymouth, followed by final hearings in Wellington, scheduled to conclude March 20. Different parties will present evidence for and against the project. The hearing does not allow for cross-examination, although questions have been submitted in advance and can be submitted throughout the process.
Groups that will testify against the project include Greenpeace, several fishing companies including the New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen, Talleys Group, Southern Inshore Fisheries Management Compan and the Cloudy Bay Clams Group of companies, including Cloudy Bay Holdings and Ant Piper. The Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of NZ is also opposed, as is Origin Energy Resources Kupe NZ. The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment will speak in favour of the project, with conditions, as will NZX-listed fishing group Sanford.
Earlier this week the three iwi in Taranaki most affected by the proposal continued to raise concerns about the EPA processes and whether the organisation has sufficient resources assigned to properly assess the application.