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At the time of writ­ing par­lia­ment is de­bat­ing the Ex­clu­sive Eco­nomic Zone and Con­ti­nen­tal Shelf (En­vi­ron­men­tal Ef­fects) Bill. This is in­tended to set up an en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment regime sim­i­lar to the pro­vi­sions of the Re­source Man­age­ment Act for New Zealand’s Ex­clu­sive Eco­nomic Zone and con­ti­nen­tal shelf, which would mean seabed min­ing any­where in the EEZ could re­quire a new kind of ‘marine con­sent’. The leg­is­la­tion is cur­rently be­ing amended af­ter wide­spread criticism that it did not go far enough, par­tic­u­larly in fail­ing to es­tab­lish clear en­vi­ron­men­tal prin­ci­ples and ab­so­lute lim­its on com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity. Whether the fi­nal Act will of­fer these safe­guards re­mains to be seen: in re­cent speeches en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter Amy Adams has con­tin­ued to talk of ‘trade-offs’, and has stated the gov­ern­ment has no plans to ban seabed min­ing. if the lev­els are high enough. It might also lead to the poi­son­ing of our own seafood, as has be­come de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar with mer­cury lev­els in fish.

Mean­while, in­creased noise on the seafloor has been im­pli­cated in the dis­tur­bance of sea mam­mals like the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Maui’s dol­phin, al­ter­ing feed­ing pat­terns and pos­si­bly lead­ing to in­creased boat col­li­sions and strand­ings. En­vi­ron­men­tal group WWF has called for no seabed min­ing to be al­lowed inside the Maui’s dol­phins habi­tat as part of a its mis­sion to help pro­tect the last 55 in­di­vid­u­als over the age of one be­lieved to sur­vive.

The in­creased ship­ping traf­fic to ser­vice the min­ing would add to the dis­tur­bance, as well as po­ten­tially in­creas­ing the risk of in­va­sive marine species due to the dis­charge of bal­last wa­ter as the bulk ore car­ri­ers load. Not to men­tion the po­ten­tial for ship­ping ac­ci­dents near our frag­ile coast­line so dra­mat­i­cally high­lighted by the Rena ex­am­ple.

The dooms­day sce­nario is that the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fects could be suf­fi­cient to se­verely dis­rupt the ocean’s food chain in large ar­eas of our seas, threat­en­ing all kinds of ocean an­i­mals, as well as our fish­eries, our marine re­cre­ation and our tourism sec­tor. Even surf­ing could be af­fected, as the sand bars that cre­ate the breaks get shifted around.

Per­haps best placed to un­der­stand these ef­fects is the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Wa­ter and At­mo­spheric Re­search. But some of their sci­en­tists have been com­mis­sioned by TTR to do this re­search for the com­pany, and so the in­sti­tute is cur­rently re­fus­ing to com­ment on the is­sues.

Som­merville says: “Amongst the many ex­perts that TTR has em­ployed are a num­ber of NIWA sci­en­tists look­ing at the ex­ist­ing en­vi­ron­ment and de­vel­op­ing mod­els to pre­dict the ef­fects of the ac­tiv­i­ties. Rel­e­vant find­ings will be made pub­lic as part of the re­source con­sent­ing process.”

But the ul­ti­mate span­ner in the works for some seabed min­ing com­pa­nies may prove to be eco­nomic, rather than en­vi­ron­men­tal. Busi­ness an­a­lysts and China watch­ers have noted in re­cent months that huge stock­piles of iron ore ap­pear to be build­ing up on de­liv­ery at Chi­nese ports, in­di­cat­ing that while China is still im­port­ing large amounts of ore, it doesn’t seem to be us­ing it at any­thing like the same rate.

TTR is con­fi­dent it can pro­vide cost-ef­fec­tive com­pe­ti­tion to cur­rent sup­pli­ers, and ex­ploit its niche mar­ket suc­cess­fully. Rainger hopes they don’t get the chance. “In the ab­sence of a co­he­sive plan to man­age the coast in a sus­tain­able way, our group feels that the safest po­si­tion is to do noth­ing,” he says. “So we will op­pose any plans to mine it at this stage. In an­other en­vi­ron­ment, with win-win pro­pos­als on the ta­ble, we may have a dif­fer­ent po­si­tion. But cur­rently, we do not sup­port giv­ing away large amounts of our nat­u­ral cap­i­tal for a pit­tance so China can keep pro­duc­ing un­wanted steel at low cost.”

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