Environmentalists are incensed at the potential for ecological disaster
Davey Jones’ locker is about to get raided; despite fervent opposition from local activists and environmental groups, Papua New Guinea has granted a Canadian firm (aptly named Nautilus Minerals) a license to mine 1.6km beneath the Bismarck Sea, 50km off the coast of the PNG island of New Britain. Project Solwara 1 has a 20-year contract to mine copper and gold; an endeavour other mining companies are watching with great interest. Environmental groups are outraged by what they say is a major threat to marine life and their habitat that could have untold effects on the eco-system and food chain.
How it works
Nautilus Minerals will extract gold and copper by levelling underwater hydrothermal “chimneys” i.e. slicing off sedimentary deposits that form around hydrothermal vents which spew out vast amounts of minerals. Sedimentary deposits are piped to a ship where ore will be separated out before pumping the remaining liquid back to the seafloor.
Activists claim an environmental report by Nautilus doesn’t accurately address the environmental impact that the mining will have on ecosystems. It also doesn’t offer contingency plans for major accidents. Opposition to the project has united under the banner of the Deep Sea Mining (DSM) Campaign where it is lobbying for the retraction of Nautilus’ mining licenses. Helen Rosenbaum, the campaign’s co-ordinator; “The big question the locals are asking is ‘What are the risks?’ There is no certain answer to that, which should trigger a precautionary principle. But Nautilus has found a place so far away from people that they can get away with any impacts. They’ve picked an underfunded government without the regulation of developed countries that will have no way of monitoring this properly.”
The DSM compiled their own report which claims that deep sea mining will wipe out organisms unique to the hydrothermal chimneys yet to be discovered by science, while sediment plumes caused by mining will expose marine life to toxic metals. “There are indirect impacts that could clog the gills of fish, affect photosynthesis and damage reefs,” says Rosenbaum. These dangerous metals could work their way up the food chain and be consumed by animals and humans.
Supporters of deep sea mining claim that it will have far less impact on the environment than above-ground mines. The sediment is rich in metals, so less has to be displaced in order to get the same yield. Chris Yeats, a geologist at CSIRO, claims that the impact on marine life will be minimal; “At those depths there are bacteria, but there’s a cut off at around 1,000m where most fish are, so it should have little impact. Unlike a terrestrial mine, you don’t have to build infrastructure such as roads and you don’t displace people. You chop off one of these venting chimneys and another one will grow back, so it’s a little like the mining equivalent of cutting grass.”
With no accurate measurement of how the mining will impact the landscape of the ocean floor and no plans to restore the environment once mining is complete, thousands of unknown species seem doomed to extinction before we have begun to explore them.
Sign the petition to revoke Nautilus’ license here.