Shifting sands: Why seabed-mining dredges up such opposition

by Rebecca Howard / 20 May, 2017
The South Taranaki Bight at Kaupokonui. Photo/Alamy

The South Taranaki Bight at Kaupokonui. Photo/Alamy

A second application for what would be the first seabed-mining permit in New Zealand is meeting heavyweight opposition from iwi, environmentalists and oil and gas interests. 

The battle lines are again being drawn in the black ironsand of the South Taranaki Bight as Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) makes a second bid for permission to mine a remote piece of seabed off the west coast of the North Island.

TTR, which describes the ironsand deposit as “world-class, with enormous, and currently untapped, economic benefit for New Zealand”, gained early government agency backing when it first began talking up the project in the late 2000s. Those opposed argue that the venture will do irreparable damage to the local environment and any benefits do not outweigh that cost.

In 2007, the company began investigating the deposits, most of which lie more than 20km west of Patea, within the 200km Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Its aim is to excavate 50 million tonnes of seabed material a year and process it for export into up to five million tonnes of iron ore annually for 35 years. It is a seabed-mining version of the Taharoa ironsands export business, which has operated since the 1970s and was sold to Maori interests last month.

The material is mined using a slow-moving crawler, which creeps along the seafloor “vacuuming” up sand and seawater and pumping it to a vessel. The iron ore is magnetically separated and the residue sand, about 90% of the total, is immediately redeposited.

“It’s not sucked up, held on a ship for days and then put back. This is a continuous dredging operation where it’s coming in the front and going out the back while we’re mining,” TTR chairman Alan Eggers told the committee hearing TTR’s second application for a seabed-mining consent.

TTR chairman Alan Eggers.

No chemicals are added and the iron ore never comes ashore; it is pumped straight to purpose-built vessels. TTR says this method of extracting ore is much cheaper than land-based mining. That insulates the venture from fluctuations in global ore prices, which tanked two years ago but have recovered somewhat lately.

The project, which the company estimates could make about $400 million in annual iron-ore sales, will cost US$550-600 million ($790-860 million) to develop.

The company says the vast majority of the redeposited sand will settle back on the seabed, filling areas already dredged. However, the process will form a “plume” in the water column, which will drift depending on tides, ocean currents and general weather conditions in an often turbulent part of the Tasman Sea.

The potential environmental impact of this plume was the reason TTR failed at its first attempt to be granted what would have been the first seabed-mining permit in New Zealand. In 2014, a committee appointed by the Environmental Protection Authority ruled that the effects of the proposal were too difficult to gauge on the evidence available. Under the terms of new and previously untested law governing the EEZ, that was grounds for rejection.

TTR, which has so far invested more than $70 million, decided not to appeal the original decision but rather submit a new application, which required a new committee. That second hearing has been under way since mid-February.

Opponents, including environmentalists, local iwi, Maori organisations, parts of the fishing industry and the Australian owner of the Kupe oil and gas field, Origin Energy, say TTR has failed to provide enough new evidence in the latest bid and there are still too many unknowns.

“TTR’s most recent application is simply the same old car with a new lick of paint,” said Robert Makgill, a lawyer for the fisheries submitters.

In a joint submission, Greenpeace and Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (Kasm) said the application “in no way overcomes the reasons the first application was denied”.

According to TTR, however, it has undertaken “significant new work to substantially improve knowledge of both the existing environment and the extent of the potential effects arising from the sand-dredging operations”. This evidence demonstrates that the effects of the proposal on both the marine environment and existing interests are “generally very small to negligible”, the company said.

However, expert witnesses for the project’s opponents take issue with the way the results of TTR’s modelling were interpreted, and the new committee asked TTR to provide more worst-case scenarios.

Zoology professor Liz Slooten. Photo/Getty Images

Danger to marine life

Ironsands support little marine life, but a plethora of opposition experts say the area covered by the application is home to creatures ranging from tiny organisms living in the bottom sediments to blue whales and the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin.

Experts for TTR claim there is a low likelihood of marine mammals being present in the proposed mining area. There was “nothing to suggest that the mining area is of any significance to any marine mammal species”, said scientist Simon Childerhouse of Blue Planet Marine New Zealand.

His view was disputed by zoology professor Liz Slooten, who blasted TTR for “poor information”, including an incomplete species list and a lack of data about the effect of noise. “There is no way that we can estimate the number of individuals of each species that might be affected by noise, through physical injury or behavioural disturbance, or that might be impacted by other effects from the mining operation,” she said. Debbie Ngarewa-Packer of Te Runanga o Ngati Ruanui Trust told the committee that “there is too much uncertainty”.

Origin, concerned with the potential impact on its own offshore operation, hasn’t seen “sufficient difference” in TTR’s new evidence to justify a different result for this application and worries particularly about the potential for a collision at sea. Origin and TTR have agreed conditions if consent is granted, but “we would prefer not to have TTR operating in our area”, said Origin’s Martin Aylward.

The committee, headed by former Wellington deputy mayor Alick Shaw, has extended its deadline from the original April 13 to May 31, citing “a number of evidential matters still to be addressed”. Even that decision was fraught with controversy: submitters argued that the company had failed to dispel any of the uncertainties and should not be given more time to do so.

Greenpeace and Kasm argued the committee should have “returned the application as incomplete” and said it is crucial that the next closing submissions be final. Fisheries and iwi submitters say they will not bear the additional cost and effort “to address information gaps in TTR’s application during this hearing”.

Greenpeace and Kasm may apply for a judicial review of the TTR bid, arguing the process is flawed.

The critical question for TTR may be whether scientific uncertainty can ever be sufficiently dispelled for a new activity in a little-understood ocean environment. If the answer is no, it won’t be dredging any time soon.

This article was first published in the May 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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