(Friends of the Earth Australia magazine)
The Deep Sea Mining Frenzy
Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals has staked its reputation on bringing off the world’s first deep sea mining (DSM) operation. The Bismarck Sea in Papua New Guinea has been marked out as the testing ground for this unprecedented technology. Many other companies − from Japan, China, Korea, the UK, Canada, USA, Germany, Australia and the Russian Federation − are waiting to see if Nautilus can successfully bring metals from sea floor to smelter before taking the plunge themselves. They’ve already taken out exploration licences covering over 1.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean floor. In addition, exploration licences now also cover vast areas of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.
This DSM exploration frenzy is occurring in the absence of regulatory regimes or conservation areas to protect the unique and little known ecosystems of the deep sea. It is also occurring without meaningful participation by the communities who will be affected by DSM in decision-making. Furthermore, the limited scientific research conducted to date provides no assurance that the health of coastal communities and the fisheries on which they depend can be guaranteed.
Three forms of DSM have attracted the attention of companies – the mining of cobalt crusts, polymetallic nodules, and deposits of seafloor massive sulphides. It is the latter which is arguably the most alluring to miners – with high grades of zinc, copper, silver, gold, lead and rare earths. The mining of seafloor massive sulphides is also likely to be the most contentious: causing the greatest environmental impact.
Seafloor massive sulphides are formed around hydrothermal vents – hot springs that occur along chains of underwater volcanic mountains. Over thousands of years black clouds of metal sulphides spurting out of the vents have settled into huge metal rich mounds up to millions of tonnes in mass.
The DSM Campaign
The Deep Sea Mining Campaign is an association of organisations and citizens from Papua New Guinea, Australia and Canada concerned about the likely impacts of DSM on marine and coastal ecosystems and communities.The aims of the campaign are to achieve Free, Prior and Informed Consent from affected communities and the application of the precautionary principle.
Put simply we believe that:
- Affected communities should participate in decisions about deep sea mining and indeed have the right to veto proposed mines, and that
Deep Sea mining should be permitted only after independently verified research has demonstrated that neither communities nor ecosystems will suffer long term negative impacts.
Huge Risks – Shonky Science
Nautilus Minerals has been granted the world’s first licence to operate a deep sea mine. It plans to extract gold and copper from sea floor massive sulphides in the Bismarck Sea in PNG. The Solwara 1 mine site is about 50 kms from the town of Rabaul in East New Britain and 30 kms from the coast of New Ireland Province.
Very little is understood about the possible impacts of individual deep sea mines let alone the cumulative impacts of the many mines likely to be developed. We also barely understand deep sea ecosystems although they occupy more than 90% of ocean space.Conditions around hydrothermal vents are unlike anywhere else on the planet and these have resulted in unique associations of species.
What we do know is that each mining operation would directly destroy thousands of hydrothermal vent formations and their ecosystems – with the very real possibility that species will become extinct before they have even been identified. While, this alone is sufficient reason to not approve DSM projects, there are additional serious risks such as the toxicity of metals that may find their way into marine food chains.
Studies and modelling are required to determine what metals will be released, what chemical forms they will be present in, the extent to which they will find their way into food chains, how contaminated the seafood eaten by local communities will be, and what effects these metals will have on fisheries of local, national and regional importance.
Until then a precautionary approach should be applied with a moratorium placed on the exploration and mining of deep sea minerals.
The DSM campaign released an independent oceanographic assessment of the Solwara 1 EIS in November 2012. The assessment indicates that coastal communities are potentially at risk of heavy metal poisoning due to up-wellings and currents at the Solwara 1 site. It also concluded that the physical oceanography and hydrodynamic components of the EIS are unacceptable by scientific standards. Moreover, every error and every omission in the EIS downplays the risk to communities and to ecosystems.
Solwara 1 is the world’s first deep sea mining experiment. As such it demands extremely careful attention to scientific detail. The EIS should have provided a clear and rigorous assessment of potential hazards and impacts. Most importantly the EIS should have provided a solid basis for the Government and people of PNG to decide whether to approve this project and if so, under what conditions. However the EIS for the world’s first licensed deep sea mine completely fails to do so.
Last December the DSM campaign wrote to the PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill seeking clarification on the basis on which the PNG Government issued Nautilus with a 20 year operating licence. Wence Magun, National Coordinator for the Madang based Mas Kagin Tapani and Deep Sea Mining (DSM) Campaign steering committee member is critical: “After receiving our letter last December, the Prime Minister described the environment as a “core issue”. But communities are still waiting to hear how he will address the many risks associated with the Solwara 1 mine. Why has our PM fallen silent on this core issue?”
Community voices against deep sea mining
The call to stop experimental sea bed mining in the Pacific is growing. Civil society in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific is speaking out against this frontier industry. This has included the presentation of a petition with over 24,000 signatures to the PNG government calling for Pacific governments to stop experimental seabed mining.
Never before in PNG’s history has a development proposal galvanised such wide ranging opposition – from representatives of local communities, students, church leaders, non-government organisations, academics, staff of government departments and national and provincial parliamentarians.
Foremost in people’s minds is the fear that PNG is being used as a laboratory for the experiment of sea bed mining and that insufficient research has been conducted on deep sea ecosystems and the impacts of sea bed mining on marine species and coastal communities. Already, the people of New Ireland Province have witnessed cloudy water, dead tuna, and the lack of response of sharks to the age old tradition of shark calling. They attribute these changes to Nautilus’ activities in the lead up to commercial mining.
According to Oigen Schulze, Director of Zero Inc, a community organisation in New Ireland Province, “Local communities have not sanctioned the Solwara 1 project. No one knows what the impacts of this form of mining will be. Communities want to know what concrete steps our Prime Minister will now take to ensure we are not being used us as guinea pigs in a sea bed mining experiment.”
At the international Rio+20 conference in Brazil in 2012, Pacific women promoted the ‘stop experimental seabed mining’ message. While in New Zealand communities have come together to campaign against the mining of their black sands and their deep seas. In March 2013, the Pacific Conference of Churches 10th General Assembly passed a resolution to stop all forms of experimental seabed mining in the Pacific.
By raising our voices we can make a difference. However, as DSM exploration increases so we must turn up the volume of our concerns. We have a window of opportunity now to stop the spectre of DSM from becoming reality.
 Dr. John Luick, ‘Physical Oceanographic Assessment of the Nautilus Environmental Impact Statement for the Solwara 1 Project – An Independent Review’, Deep Sea Mining Campaign http://www.deepseaminingoutofourdepth.org/report
 Pacific NGOs step up Oceans Campaign at Rio+20, Island Business, June 15 2012,
 kasm.org; deepseaminingoutofourdepth.org/tag/new-zealand
 ‘Pacific Conference of Churches calls for a halt to seabed mining’, Dawn Gibson, 29 May 2013, Island Business, http://www.islandsbusiness.com/news/fiji/1358/pcc-calls-for-halt-to-seabed-mining/
Dr Helen Rosenbaum is the coordinator of the Deep Sea Mining campaign and Natalie Lowrey is the campaign’s communications coordinator.
The Deep Sea Mining Campaign is a project of The Ocean Foundation www.oceanfdn.org