Alex Baird – Newshub – Saturday, 12 August 2017
OPINION: Did we really just give the green light for 50 million tonnes of south Taranaki’s iron ore-rich seabed to be torn up every year, for the next 35 years?
Yes, we did. Well, you may not have, but our Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) certainly did.
There were 13,733 submissions on the plan by Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR); 97.6 percent of those asked the EPA to turn it down.
Yes, you read that right – 13,417 said NO – only 115 said YES.
The four members of the EPA’s decision-making committee couldn’t agree either. They were split down the middle and the only reason it scraped through was because the chairperson had the deciding vote.
So despite a resounding no from public submitters – and a dubious official okay – New Zealand is now paving the way for a world-first in seabed mining (quite literally – this type of project has never been tried before).
The operation will see an area nearly three times the size of Auckland’s Rangitoto Island opened up for mining. Eight thousand tonnes of the seabed will be ploughed up every hour – that’s the same weight as more than 100 fully loaded Airbus 320s – to the depth of a three-storey house.
Once the iron ore is extracted, 90 percent of the leftover seabed sediment will be discharged back into the ocean, causing a plume across the South Taranaki Bight.
A project which has no track record anywhere else in the world will be tested slap-bang in the middle of our country’s only blue whale habitat and in an area frequented by the rare Maui’s dolphin (so rare it’s thought there are only 63 left).
The two members of the EPA committee who were against the plans weren’t half-hearted in their opposition; they were described as a “strong dissenting view”.
They paint a pretty sobering environmental picture of the project, saying there is a risk of “significant cumulative impacts” on primary production and marine mammals.
Fish are expected to flee the massive plume of sand and mud.
Those fisheries are of huge cultural importance to local iwi Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru Kītahi. The fish can leave, but the iwi can’t up and move their rohe (territory). Ngāti Ruanui in particular has lashed out at TTR for its lack of consultation with iwi as kaitiaki (guardians) of the area.
Whales and other marine mammals
This will be an extremely noisy operation in an area home to whales and dolphins, which rely on sound.
That sound has been limited in the consent conditions to 120dB. That’s the same as a clap of thunder or a chainsaw, but playing non-stop. And that level of sound is being allowed outside an area far larger than the mining site.
The two pro-mining committee members have admitted that the project will have likely impacts on marine mammals and have imposed conditions on TTR, but these – for the most part – don’t go beyond a monitoring function.
Sure, there’s a chance the whole operation will have negligible impacts in the long run, but should we be playing with that chance? Remember, this is our only blue whale habitat.
But – what a relief – every dead marine mammal will be “formally autopsied to provide possible indications of cause of death”.
The dredging of the sea floor will completely destroy whatever ecosystems are present in the direct mining area, with the EPA saying species “should” re-colonise the area.
Dr Shaw Mead – one of many submitters – told the EPA that changes to the mining site will be “major or catastrophic”, with the potential for local extinctions of seabed organisms.
The plume of sediment washing across the area could also have “significant adverse effects” on ecologically sensitive sites, with the timeframe for recovery of such complex and diverse marine habitats “largely unknown”.
The two dissenting committee members pulled apart TTR’s application by saying there was a lack of information, evidence and data proving that the project is environmentally safe.
Sure, you can monitor the area, but if the environment doesn’t recover after such a traumatic event, what then?
Is economic gain – TTR is citing hundreds of local jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in earnings – worth the long term environmental impact?
The problem is, we simply don’t know enough. Yet the project is steaming ahead.
The EPA is required by law to take a cautious approach.
The Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 – which governs the area where the mining will take place – says the EPA must take into account any uncertainty or inadequacy in the information available, favouring caution and environmental protection.
The EPA seems satisfied everything will be hunky dory… are you?
Alex Baird is a Newshub reporter.