How low can you go? Mining the depths

Today I made my oral submission to the Environmental Protection Authority on Chatham Rock Phosphate’s application to mine phosphate from the seabed approximately halfway between the mainland and the Chatham Island. In a nutshell this application is for the deepest mining project in the world using mining equipment never used before, to vacuum up the first several meters of the seabed, including bowling ancient coral forests, taking the phosphate out and dumping the rest back – all in the midst of our most productive fishery, in an incredibly sensitive ecosystem, with some parts within a protected area where trawling is off limits. If it goes ahead it would be a world-first experiment in one of the last places we should be gambling with.

Down 400 meters where this company wants to mine, it’s incredibly cold, pitch black, and the pressure would crush and kill a person. Yet there are thriving ancient coral forests and a host of species living amongst the branches and on the seafloor. The Chatham Rise is the ancient remnant of the gigantic submerged Zealandia continent and its scarred face was gouged by gigantic icebergs at the end of the last ice age. At the confluence of Northern and Southern oceanic currents it’s our most productive fishery and contains a Benthic Protected Area to protect the seafloor ecosystem and fish stocks. It’s a very special place, and while we won’t see it personally, it deserves our protection.

My history campaigning for seafloor protection started before Parliament, when I worked at Greenpeace. I sailed on the Rainbow Warrior and took direct action to do what our Government then refused to do, and actually stopped the deep sea bottom trawlers wreaking their havoc on the seafloor by dragging large heavy nets up and down the seamounts. A powerful moment was seeing Kiwi fishers throwing overboard, dead, a 500 year old Gorgonian coral, taller than I am that they had trawled up. The photograph of that environmental crime and a global campaign led to a bottom trawling ban in the Southern Pacific high seas and a network of Benthic Protected Areas (BPAs) that covers 30% of our waters where trawling and dredging is prohibited. Today, the fishing industry supports the BPAs and oppose this mining application, fearing its impacts will damage their livelihoods. It is odd now to find myself on the same side of an argument as the deep sea fishing industry.

I related that experience of watching that 500 year coral killed and casually thrown overboard to the EPA today, and urged them to not allow more ancient corals to be destroyed in their protected area. It’s clear this proposal will kill ancient corals, but a huge number of questions remain unanswered. Seabed mining is a new field and it is hardly surprising that very little is known about the impacts, or this environment, and more importantly, how it will be affected by mining. The EPA Decision Making Committee themselves have made dozens and dozens of requests to CRP asking for more information. Marine Mammal expert Dr Slooten told the committee there was no adequate baseline research regarding the whales and dolphins resident there but just a list of species was provided. Dr Peake told the committee there was inadequate baseline data regarding the water column and others submitted highlighting the fact there are no guidelines for uranium, which will be mined up with the phosphate nodules, in the marine environment. No one knows what will happen when the mined sediment is dumped back down, how far it will travel, if it will smoother and kill species on the seafloor or if new corals will take decades or a hundred years to grow back if at all. The law says if the information available is uncertain or inadequate, the EPA must favour caution and environmental protection and that’s exactly why they ruled against the first seabed mining application to mine ironsands off the Whanganui coast earlier this year.

Ancient corals thrown overboard. Photo credit: Greenpeace


The company says there will be economic benefits, which the EEZ Act says the EPA must consider, but even these benefits are in doubt. The royalties while not set will be tiny, the profits will flow offshore, and whatever phosphate is used on New Zealand farms will no doubt be priced at the international level and not at a discount to Kiwi farmers. The fact that this phosphate contains higher traces of uranium than other sources could lead to brand risks and questions around how safe applying uranium to our fields and paddocks is by our international customers. Meanwhile the fishing industry fears for its thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of exports.

There may be a future for seabed mining but only if it can be proven safe, and in the context of comprehensive oceans policy that identifies and offers genuine protection to sensitive and important areas. In this regard we must do much, much better, with only 0.41% of our waters currently protected in marine reserves. I have pushed for an inquiry into this new issue of seabed mining and put a vote to Parliament for a moratorium so we can give the issue consideration before racing ahead threatening our marine environment and kaimoana (like Australia’s Northern Territory and Namibia have enacted), but sadly Labour and National voted against approaching this with caution.
As the Greens mining spokesperson I will keep up the fight against bad mining proposals and will continue to push hard for a smart, green innovative economy which will deliver more jobs and prosperity. I researched this mining proposal with an open mind and consulted widely but cannot support this unprecedented application for a global guinea pig experiment to mine at the deepest depth with unproven technology with huge uncertainties, a lack of baseline information and clear guidelines, and big risks to fishing jobs, all in a significant protected ecosystem, and our most productive fishery.

6 Comments Posted

  1. OK Gerrit… in that context it is a fair question. If you are talking about a long term sustainable operation you have already set a bar too high for most current mining operations. Almost by definition what is taken out of the earth is not replaced by natural processes in any timeframe that is useful, so the first response for most of us is that it cannot be “sustainable”, but there IS always a need to do some.

    The question is how much. Greens do have a tendency to say “none” but that isn’t realistic. The key to getting Greens to grudgingly allow some extraction is to make the effort to not waste what is extracted. Anything metal in the tip is already wrong. We cannot afford cheap/throwaway unfixable rubbish. Cheap to build and wasteful cannot be tolerated. So as we continue down that path the Green attitude to the process is apt to become almost implacably hostile.

    Still. Rather than crush the sea floor wholesale for this particular resource, the nature of the desired material is actually suitable for dextrous robotic collection, which would be almost completely benign in terms of impact on fisheries, and coral, and all the rest.

    But we aren’t recycling it, or even preventing it from being lost as pollution in the rivers and streams. That’s just wrong.

  2. That’s Gareth and that’s the Greens for you. Always negative, never constructive. Just seek to hinder, cause loss, cause cost, inhibit etc. Goes for Greenpeace too, of course.

  3. BJ,

    Did I say I agreed with the proposal? Not at all in agreement with the proposal. Just pointing out inconsistencies in the Greens argument for not going ahead.

    New technology? No we have had seabed mining in some shape or another for ever. Earliest recorded undersea mining were the Phoenicians in 11BC

    Doing something different, and sustainable starting NOW is Green.

    Which is what I’m asking, what mining techniques are permissible? What will the Greens allow to be mined?

    When I scan recent postings, the overriding assessment is the Greens are against everything mining.

    No worries, but try living without the production of mining.

    So again what is acceptable?

  4. There are so many things wrong with this proposal Gerrit, that it beggars belief that you’d go to bat for it. Let us start with the REASON for the problem…

    We are intensifying our agriculture. We are unwilling to recycle phosphate but instead are chewing up every available reservoir of the stuff and letting it run off into rivers and down to the sea. Most of the easy deposits are gone, the remaining rock phosphate sources contain cadmium (which is approaching levels in our soil that would prohibit our produce from being sold in the EU), but rather than removing cadmium from the rock phosphate we have, we have found in a protected seabed area, some phosphate nodules that contain very little cadmium.

    In a world running short….

    …the question is what is sustainable. Two Thirds of our current global population could not be fed without supplements to our soils… and increasing the use of and dependency on fertilizers is NOT going all that well.

    So everything runs into the rivers and we dig up more to dump on the land which retains the heavy metals and becomes progressively poisoned. We don’t want to pay the price to prepare the rock fertilizer by removing cadmium (as they do in the EU). We don’t want to recycle the phosphate. We want to find more cheap phosphate we can dump on the ground to disappear forever after a single use.

    This is not a sustainable answer, and going into deep protected marine reserves to pulverize the ocean bottom and extract what little remains is not going to make it more sustainable, it is simply going to slightly extend the time until we HAVE to do something different.

    Doing something different, and sustainable starting NOW is Green. Destroying swathes of a protected marine ecosystem for short term profit is not.

  5. Having been fisked regarding Namibia seabed diamond mining, I’m suprised you bring up the non existing moratorium from there.

    New Zealand is a member the UN sanctified body called International Seabed Authority

    Are the Greens aware that this body has been in existence for over 20 years and the the fact that they can issue permits plus guidelines on exploration and mining of the sea bed? Will the Greens ask this body of experts for their opinion?

    Sea bed mining new technology? Hardly. Namibia has been at it since 1961, over 50 years.

    Perhaps as Greens mining spokesperson, Gareth Hughes may like to outline what mining practices will be acceptable? Haven’t seen any “good” mining proposals from the Greens.

  6. Very sad to watch Labour essentially become National-lite. And they wonder why their support is dwindling?

    Once again the wants of the few appear to outweigh the needs of the many.

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