Stick­ing their ore in

Element - - Front Page - By Andy Ken­wor­thy

Should we al­low for­eign com­pa­nies to strip-mine our iron sands?

Seabed min­ing is the busi­ness of suck­ing huge amounts of sand from the sea floor, ex­tract­ing valu­able min­er­als from it us­ing mag­nets and fil­ters, and then pump­ing the re­main­ing sand back down. Its sup­port­ers say it could pro­vide a multi-bil­lion dol­lar boost to the New Zealand econ­omy and cre­ate hun­dreds of jobs with­out sig­nif­i­cantly dam­ag­ing the ocean ecol­ogy. But op­posers reckon that cur­rent plans will frit­ter away this re­source for pre­cious lit­tle re­turn while dev­as­tat­ing marine life, our fish­eries and our beaches.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port from the Royal So­ci­ety of New Zealand, our seabed holds com­mer­cial min­eral de­posits on the Camp­bell Plateau, the Chatham Rise, and more po­ten­tially valu­able sites along sev­eral arcs of ac­tive and ex­tinct vol­canic on the seabed around our shores. The ac­tive un­der­wa­ter vol­ca­noes, or ‘black smok­ers’, also hold out the tan­ta­liz­ing prospect that their con­tin­u­ing for­ma­tion of ‘poly­metal­lic sul­phides’ con­tain­ing iron, man­ganese, gold, sil­ver, cop­per, and zinc could be­come a sus­tain­able and re­plen­ish­ing stock of these min­er­als. A six-year study by GNS sci­ence sug­gested that there could be tens of bil­lions of dol­lars worth of min­er­als to be found off­shore.

"In­stead of Kiwi com­pa­nies tak­ing the lead and max­imis­ing the value for New Zealand, for­eign­held com­pa­nies like TTR are be­ing al­lowed to strip mine our na­tion’s min­eral wealth..."

Cur­rently four com­pa­nies have per­mits to ex­plore this awe­some po­ten­tial. One of the most ac­tive is Trans Tas­man Re­sources Lim­ited, which in­cludes for­mer New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter Dame Jenny Ship­ley on its board. The com­pany was cre­ated in 2007 specif­i­cally to ex­ploit the bil­lions of tonnes of vol­canic iron ore de­posits in the sands off the west coast of the North Is­land. The com­pany has been granted ex­clu­sive min­eral rights out to 12 nau­ti­cal miles along the Taranaki Bight from the Ran­gi­tikei River in the south and the Waikato River in the north.

TTR has com­pleted ini­tial sur­vey work that sug­gests there are 481 mil­lion tones of iron ore avail­able in the South Taranaki Bight alone, buried up to nine me­tres be­low the seabed. TTR also holds a Con­ti­nen­tal Shelf Act Prospect­ing Li­cence for a fur­ther 3,314km2 in New Zealand’s Ex­clu­sive Eco­nomic Zone. The plan is to ex­tract iron ore to make steel in spe­cialised plants in China and Rus­sia. And al­though it can be pro­cessed into steel here at New Zealand Steel’s Glen­brook steel mill, TTR’s cur­rent scheme favours ex­tract­ing and pro­cess­ing the ore out at sea, be­fore ship­ping it di­rect to Asia. The com­pany es­ti­mates that a to­tal of $1 bil­lion needs to be in­vested to de­velop the off­shore min­ing in­dus­try, al­though the po­ten­tial sources of that in­vest­ment are not yet known.

Andy Som­merville, TTR’s en­vi­ron­men­tal and ap­provals man­ager, says the com­pany is ready to lodge ap­pli­ca­tions to start min­ing South Taranaki Bight area as soon as cur­rent changes in the law gov­ern­ing the use of New Zealand’s Ex­clu­sive Eco­nomic Zone are fi­nalised, some­thing that was due to hap­pen any day as El­e­ment went to press.

“If we could get US$100 per tonne for our 480 Mt then that would equal $48 bil­lion,” he says. “If de­vel­oped at five mil­lion tonnes per year, that would equal rev­enue of $500 mil­lion per year and from that costs would need to be de­ducted. At that rate too, the 480 mil­lion tonnes re­source would last 96 years.”

Ac­cord­ing to TTR it is dif­fi­cult to pre­dict the scale of the in­dus­try that could de­velop and the speed this might hap­pen. Else­where around New Zealand a com­pany called Nep­tune Re­sources has been sur­vey­ing the Ker­madec re­gion’s black smok­ers for min­ing po­ten­tial, de­spite the fact that it is a ‘ben­thic pro­tec­tion area’ in which bot­tom trawl­ing for fish is al­ready banned and the area around the Ker­madec Is­lands is New Zealand’s largest marine re­serve. And Welling­ton-based Chatham Rock Phos­phate is gath­er­ing up global in­vestors to be­gin min­ing the seabed around the Chatham Is­lands for the es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent in man­u­fac­tured fer­tilis­ers.

Som­merville says: “There has pre­vi­ously been min­ing for sim­i­lar prod­uct at Waip­ipi, just out from Waverly, and there is cur­rently iron ore pro­duced at Ta­haroa, for ex­port, and Waikato North head, for steel pro­duc­tion at Glen­brook. Whilst these are on­shore they have been es­tab­lished for a num­ber of years re­sult­ing in no great rush to de­velop sim­i­lar mines.”

Ki­wis Against Seabed Min­ing (KASM) is hop­ing that no seabed min­ing hap­pens at all. The group was founded by Tim Rainger, a long time surfer and au­thor of the NZ Good Beach Guide, along with Phil McCabe who runs the Solscape eco-re­treat and pro­gres­sive learn­ing cen­tre and oth­ers around Raglan. KASM de­scribes it­self as a spon­ta­neous community-based ac­tion group strongly op­posed to nonessen­tial seabed min­ing. The group has been busy rais­ing aware­ness about the cur­rent pro­pos­als with a range of events and protests draw­ing hun­dreds of par­tic­i­pants, and hopes to con­vince cur­rent and fu­ture gov­ern­ments to rule out any fu­ture seabed min­ing op­er­a­tions.

Rainger ex­plains: “The en­tire sea area from Whanganui to Kaipara, over 20,000 square kilo­me­ters, is cov­ered by per­mits, held by sev­eral large com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Rio Tinto. If TTR is suc­cess­ful with its first ap­pli­ca­tion to mine, it would be nat­u­ral to ex­pect that sim­i­lar op­er­a­tions may com­mence in those ar­eas too. The cu­mu­la­tive im­pact of sev­eral sim­i­lar strip-min­ing op­er­a­tions on the west coast would be an eco­log­i­cal tragedy. Ob­vi­ously the snap­per and sev­eral other recre­ational and com­mer­cial fish species feed from the bot­tom, and by dis­turb­ing the seafloor and thus re­mov­ing their food sup­ply, you crit­i­cally en­dan­ger the en­tire ecosys­tem.”

Along­side the en­vi­ron­men­tal ar­gu­ments, pro­tes­tors also point out that in­stead of Kiwi com­pa­nies tak­ing the lead and max­imis­ing the value for New Zealand, for­eign-held com­pa­nies like TTR are be­ing al­lowed to strip-mine our na­tion’s min­eral wealth as if we were an un­der­de­vel­oped plan­ta­tion econ­omy. For ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to Com­pa­nies Of­fice records only 3% of TTR’s shares are held in New Zealand and Ship­ley is the only Kiwi at the top. And while Chatham Rock Phos­phate is a Kiwi firm listed on the NZAX, Nep­tune is a wholly owned sub­sidiary of a US firm. Some in­di­ca­tions sug­gest that be­yond the re­turns the few New Zealand in­vestors in these firms might be ex­pect­ing, and the rel­e­vant tax­a­tion the com­pa­nies might only pay some­where be­tween 1 – 5% of net rev­enue from the min­ing to the gov­ern­ment in roy­al­ties, de­pend­ing on the amount of money be­ing made.

How­ever, Som­merville says: ”It is gen­er­ally as­sumed that for an op­er­a­tion such as TTR is propos­ing over 80% of the rev­enue stays in the coun­try where the re­source is lo­cated in the form of wages, taxes, roy­al­ties and other ser­vices.” But adds: “In TTR’s case this topic has not been ex­am­ined in any de­tail so I can­not con­firm that that will be the case.”

What Rainger finds dis­ap­point­ing is that it was Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity in the shape of the New Zealand Steel In­ves­ti­ga­tion Com­pany that first de­vel­oped the tech­nol­ogy to process this ma­te­rial in the first place back in the late 1950s. He says: “There will be few jobs and no real ben­e­fit for us, yet we stand to lose a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of our in­shore marine en­vi­ron­ment if this process goes ahead on the un­prece­dented scale that has been pro­posed. What the hell are we do­ing sell­ing this re­source whole­sale, when we could reap a far big­ger re­ward by pro­cess­ing it here? In so do­ing we could use the re­source at a much slower rate which could pos­si­bly avoid the en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe that would oc­cur if the gov­ern­ment were to al­low wide scale ex­ploita­tion over a long pe­riod.” He cites a 2007 Crown Min­er­als re­port which states that: “Pro­duc­tion of added-value iron and steel prod­ucts in New Zealand rather than ex­port of the raw ma­te­rial iron sand should be the goal.”

OUT OF OUR DEPTH?

As for the po­ten­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age of seabed min­ing, the over­all con­sen­sus is that these re­main largely un­known, but it is ac­cepted by all sides that seabed min­ing de­stroys ev­ery liv­ing thing in its im­me­di­ate path. The key ques­tions are: how big is the path, how of­ten will it be trav­elled and how long be­fore it re­cov­ers?

In the Taranaki Bight the as­sess­ment is com­pli­cated by the fact that this is an area sub­ject to se­vere and near con­stant dis­tur­bance from the pow­er­ful forces of nat­u­ral waves and cur­rents. A re­cent Royal So­ci­ety of New Zealand re­port said: “The seafloor ecosys­tem un­der­goes nat­u­ral dis­tur­bances from storms and other events that re­dis­tribute sed­i­ment and smother habi­tats on the seafloor. If the size, reach, and fre­quency of these nat­u­ral dis­tur­bances mimic those of pro­posed min­ing ac­tiv­ity then the re­silience of these habi­tats to nat­u­ral dis­tur­bance may be a use­able proxy for the re­silience of these habi­tats to dis­tur­bance from min­ing.”

In other words, the ar­gu­ment is that things are pretty rough down there for plants and an­i­mals, so the dis­tur­bance, while se­vere in the near vicin­ity and short term, may not rep­re­sent a se­vere threat in the long run if it is not done on a grand scale. But the So­ci­ety’s re­port does point out that: “if the nat­u­ral and an­thro­pogenic dis­tur­bances act on the ecosys­tem in a cu­mu­la­tive fash­ion such sim­ple com­par­isons would be poor prox­ies,” mean­ing if we keep this up we may get more than we bar­gained for.

Other sci­en­tific stud­ies of seabed min­ing have ex­pressed con­cern about the pos­si­ble de­struc­tion of seabed fea­tures in­clud­ing the black smok­ers that cur­rently sup­port all kinds of aquatic life, much of it rel­a­tively un­stud­ied by sci­ence since they were only dis­cov­ered in the late 1970s. TTR has stated it only pro­poses to mine sandy ar­eas, gen­er­ally out of sight of shore, pre­sum­ably with the aim of avoid­ing this prob­lem and the ad­di­tional risk of smoth­er­ing of more fa­mil­iar high bio­di­ver­sity rocky reef habi­tat near the shore. There is also the im­pact of large plumes of float­ing sand and dust in the wa­ter, which could in­hibit fil­ter feed­ing, the pho­to­syn­the­sis of plants, or even the abil­ity of fish and plank­ton in the area to nav­i­gate and feed.

Some sug­gest that sed­i­ment plumes could also ex­pose marine food chains to heavy met­als, many of which can be in­gested by marine an­i­mals ei­ther di­rectly from the wa­ter or cu­mu­la­tively by car­niv­o­rous crea­tures from the an­i­mals they eat. This could lead to cell dam­age, mu­ta­tions and re­pro­duc­tive fail­ure at even low lev­els of pol­lu­tion and fatal poi­son­ing

In­creased noise on the seafloor has been im­pli­cated in the dis­tur­bance of sea mam­mals like the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Maui’s dol­phin

COULD SEABED MIN­ING BOOST OUR ECON­OMY, OR ARE WE OUT OF OUR DEPTH?

Glen­brook Steel Mill.

Photo: Michael Cun­ning­ham/

North­ern Ad­vo­cate

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