Executive Summary from Professor Richard Steiner’s Independent Review of the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Nautilus Minerals Solwara 1 Seabed Mining Project, Papua New Guinea
The Solwara 1 project proposes to commercially exploit gold and copper deposits associated with deep-sea hydrothermal vents at a depth of 1,500 in the Bismarck Sea off Papua New Guinea. As the Project would represent the first large-scale, human-induced, site-specific disturbance to the deep ocean basin anywhere in the world, it must be considered with exceptional deliberation and caution. Scientists only first discovered these deep-sea hydrothermal vents and their exotic chemosynthetic ecosystems in 1976, and these extraordinary ecosystems remain poorly understood today. Deep-sea hydrothermal vents, found along mid-ocean ridges and back-arc basins (such as the Manus Basin in the Bismarck Sea), support one of the rarest and most unique ecological communities known to science.
Organisms derive their energy from sulfide chemicals in hot (350 C), mineralized vent fluids rather than directly or indirectly from photosynthesis as in other biological communities, and/or from endosymbionts in their tissues. Most species discovered at vents are new to science, and the vents support communities with “extremely high biomass” relative to other deep-sea habitats. Some scientists suggest that such deep-sea hydrothermal vents systems may be where life first evolved on Earth.
The proposed Solwara 1 mining project would destroy an extensive patch of productive vent habitat, including tens of thousands of vent chimneys, killing virtually all of the attached organisms. The EIS states that: “The extent of the impacts to vents and other seafloor habitats directly mined will inevitably be severe at the site scale,” and that “it may be many years before development of chimneys returns to pre-mining conditions (emphasis added).” And mining is expected to alter venting frequency and characteristics on surrounding seafloor areas as well, thus affecting the ecological communities of a much broader scale than just the mined site.
Although the Solwara 1 EIA / EIS makes a significant contribution to deep-sea vent science, it is clear that the EIS does not present sufficient information with which the PNG government can effectively judge the project’s expected impacts. Thus the EIS is judged as not fit-to-purpose. Many risk contingencies are poorly analyzed, some are not analyzed at all, and many of the baseline studies necessary to understand potential impacts have yet to be completed.
For instance, studies of the taxonomy and genetic relationships of macro-invertebrate species found at Solwara 1, South Su (upstream about 2 km), and Solwara 8 (downstream about 45 km) have not been completed, and thus the degree of genetic variability and endemism of organisms between sites is not yet known. It is likely that several rare and endemic (found only at the site) macro-invertebrate species that are yet to be described by science exist at Solwara 1. As a result of the 2007 study at the mine site, “at least 20 new species have been added to the species list at active vent sites.” This is a high rate of discovery of species new to science, and species encounter rates of the studies predict that there are likely many more species yet to be identified at the site. Such species would likely become extinct due to the mining project, even without having yet been identified or described. This alone constitutes an unacceptable risk. Bioethics dictates that resource development should not knowingly put species at risk of extinction, be they well-known charismatic macro-fauna (tigers, gorillas, whales, etc.), or poorly known deep-sea invertebrates.
While Nautilus conducted extensive studies of the deep-sea benthic (bottom dwelling) communities at the site, no systematic study was conducted on the deep-sea pelagic (water column) community that would be impacted immediately overlying the seafloor. Further, there was an inadequate assessment of risks associated with sediment and waste rock disposal, toxicity of the dewatering plume to deep-sea organisms, effects of increased light and noise in the deep ocean environment, and potential accidents on seafloor equipment or surface vessels. Regarding impacts to the nearshore ecosystem, one of the greatest risks from the project is the potential loss of tow or power of an ore shuttle barge in route to Rabaul (the EIS projects 3-9 barge trips per week, with 6,000 tons of toxic ore onboard each transit), or of one of the 25,000 ton bulk ore freighters (3-6 trips per month from Rabaul), and the barge or freighter then drifting ashore spilling its toxic cargo and fuel onto the coastal reef system. Yet, this risk was not considered at all in the EIS. Much of the EIS is simply too general in nature to determine impacts, and many of the mitigations proposed rely upon Environmental Management Plans and procedures that have yet to be developed by Nautilus, and thus the effectiveness of these cannot be judged at present.
It is likely that the project would result in severe, prolonged, and perhaps region-wide impacts to a globally rare and poorly understood biological community, and it is clear that the EIS does not adequately assess many of these impacts. Further, the benefits to local people or the economy of PNG seem disproportionately low compared to the scale and risk of the project.
While the Project could gross almost $1 billion USD in its 30-month lifetime, it expects to provide only $41 million in total taxes and royalties to the government, a $1.5 million development fund, and a few dozen jobs at most to PNG nationals.
Given the above concerns, it is respectfully recommended that the government of PNG not approve the project on the basis of this EIS.