Trans-Tasman Resources chairman Alan Eggers says Environmental Protection Agency approval of the marine and discharge consents necessary for the company to recover and export iron sands from the South Taranaki Bight will unlock a vast previously untapped world-class resource. By NEIL RITCHIE.
“THE APPROVAL IS the right result, good science and common sense,” he told Q&M, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in August granting authority for Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) to proceed with its controversial plan to extract and process up to five million tonnes per year of iron sands, primarily for export, for 20 years.
Perennial protestors – such as Greenpeace, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) and various other groups, including some Taranaki Maori – have already filed High Court appeals against the EPA approval of TTR’s second application (the EPA declined TTR’s first application in 2014). However, this does not faze Eggers.
“We know these High Court appeals have been filed and we hope they will be resolved by late 2017 and will not impact on our monitoring programme … unfortunately we will always have detractors and opponents.”
Commercial operations to extract the ore will not start until late 2019-early 2020, he adds.
The EPA decision making committee (DMC) recommendations include more than 100 conditions to the marine and discharge consents, with one requiring TTR to carry out environmental monitoring for two years before, during and after mining.
Eggers says TTR agrees with the many checks and balances imposed by the EPA to ensure the company’s transparency and with the constant monitoring of its operations.
“Yes, there are so many conditions, but the monitoring conditions are comprehensive and, with trigger levels set, will ensure TTR meets the highest standard of environmental compliance whilst operating in the STB.
“The STB is now the most researched and surveyed area of ocean environment around New Zealand … this is as a direct result of TTR’s significant investment in extensive environmental assessment by New Zealand and international marine ecology experts on the environment and the impact on that environment of our iron ore recovery operation.”
TTR also welcomes the setting up of an independent technical review group made up of representatives from the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC), Maori tribes, fisheries, an oil and gas company (likely to be Australian listed Origin Energy that operates the nearby offshore Kupe gas field), and the Department of Conservation, to oversee mining activity, including the design of the monitoring programme.
Information gathered during the pre-mining monitoring phase will be used to set a baseline and be compared against results during the actual mining process. The monitoring will look at the effects of underwater noise, suspended sediment and fish life on the seabed ecosystem.
TTR says its extensive environmental studies show the overall environmental effects of the proposed mining will be “negligible to minor”, with little effect on sea food, beaches, fishing, diving or any activities within the proposed mining area.
The most affected areas will be those directly impacted by the underwater crawler, moving about 400 metres per hour and working in ‘lanes’ that will average about five metres depth, extracting and then pumping sediment as a slurry to TTR’s integrated mining vessel on the surface of the sea.
The company’s mining permit covers just a little more than 65 square kilometres, equating to only about a fifth of one percent (0.21 percent) of the entire STB. And TTR’s operations at any one time will amount to just under one tenth of 1000th of a percent (0.00009 percent) of the STB by area. Also, TTR says its system to extract and then deposit the processed sediment is designed to minimise any plume effects.
The EPA notes that the annual amount of sediment being added to the STB by rivers and streams exceeds, by more than 15 times, TTR’s proposed sediment stream.
“Local marine life is already well adapted to such a sediment laden environment,” the authority says. And any plumes generated by TTR’s operation are unlikely to add any additional sediment deposition or suspension in near-shore areas, which are outside TTR’s mining permit, it adds.
TTR’s approval to mine iron sands off the coast of Taranaki is a first for the region and for the country. But there have been many previous attempts to mine the material found along the Taranaki coastline since the late 1840s, with the last being a small onshore mining operation at Waipipi, near the South Taranaki town of Waverley. This operation ran from 1971 and produced about 15.7 million tonnes of concentrate, mainly for export, until it closed in 1987.
And other onshore sites, such as those at Taharoa and Waikato North, already supply the needs of the country’s comparatively small steel industry, as well as being exported to international markets such as Japan, South Korea and China.
Iron sands contain some important and valuable components – principally magnetite, an iron oxide that is a key component in steel making; titanium oxide, which is required for making titanium alloys that are used in high-tech applications such as aviation, defence and medical equipment; and vanadium oxide, which is used to increase the strength, heat and corrosion resistance of steel, particularly in high-grade reinforcing steel for earthquake strengthening in building and construction.
“The environmental monitoring programme, as consented by EPA, commences when we start construction of the vessels and runs for two years before we commence mining activities and, obviously, throughout the mining operation for 20 years, and then for a further five or so years post-mining to ensure there are no adverse affects or remedial action required by TTR,” Eggers says.
“And a bankable feasibility study is commencing now and will take around 18 months; largely finalising the detailed design of the integrated mining vessel and arranging finance to build the vessels and infrastructure required,” adds Eggers, a fifth generation Kiwi with decades of international mining experience.
“The EPA now has a set of monitoring conditions that TTR must meet [as part of the marine consent grant] and if we fail to meet these we have to cease operations until we can demonstrate we can meet the limits set … and the EPA is again on full cost recovery from TTR to undertake the monitoring and compliance activities associated with our iron ore recovery operation,” he says.
The EPA consents are the first for seabed mining in our Exclusive Economic Zone that extends from 12 to 200 nautical miles offshore. Coastal waters 12 nautical miles or closer to land are the responsibility of the TRC.
And Eggers is still confident TTR’s project “will unlock the economic potential of a vast previously untapped world-class resource”.
The country will benefit from increased royalty revenues of about $20 million per year on annual export revenues, giving a total of about $400 million based on full production at current prices over the scheduled 20-year economic life of the project, he says.