Trans-Tasman Resources continues with its plans to mine iron sands from the waters off South Taranaki in the face of ‘plumes of anti-mining protests’, with both sides slinging a lot of ‘modelling science’ at each other. NEIL RITCHIE updates the fight.
Taranaki affiliated Maori tribes and the protest movement called Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) have rallied to oppose Trans-Tasman Resources and its second application to the Environmental Protection Authority for marine consents to proceed with the proposed multimillion-dollar South Taranaki Bight (STB) iron sands project.
These groups, as well as Greenpeace and others, have made thousands of submissions to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) again opposing Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) being granted any consents.
TTR remains undaunted and support for its second application round has come from a rather unexpected source – the Department of Conservation (DOC).
Last year TTR and another seabed mining proposer, Chatham Rock Phosphate, had their first applications turned down by the EPA. In mid-October the EPA extended the public submission period by a month. The extension means the formal application will now begin no later than January 31, 2017.
After opposing TTR’s first application because it believed more information was needed on the effects of mining-related activities and any potential destruction of the marine habitat, DOC has now chosen not to make a second submission, saying it’s satisfied all necessary conservation measures have been met.
The government department says TTR has accepted its suggestions regarding conditions and amendments to monitoring and management plans, and that TTR’s amended second application is “significantly more robust” than the failed application of 2014.
DOC also now believes the fine sand stripped of iron ore will clump together and descend to the sea floor faster than first thought and that no further conservation gains will be made by submitting again.
However, as expected, Taranaki tribe Ngati Ruanui reckons the DOC decision will have negative flow-on effects. Earlier opposition from the tribe and KASM included public media advertisements decrying the accuracy of TTR’s environmental claims.
Ngati Ruanui claims the sediment plume from TTR’s proposed seabed mining of the iron sands will be as large as Mount Taranaki, which is 2518 metres high and covers more than 300 square kilometres.
It also says the proposed seabed mining will effectively be a giant quarry reducing sunlight reaching sea food and killing all living organisms in the area being mined. Mining will also negatively impact on the migratory paths of whales and dolphins and may also affect lobster and developing shellfish fisheries.
In the long-term, the tribe claims seabed mining will reduce water clarity and create contaminated discharges to the air, containing such elements as nitrogen oxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) and may negatively impact patterns and the distribution of sand to the detriment of surfers and other users. The eight other Taranaki iwi are supporting Ngati Ruanui’s claims.
KASM says the science around the environmental impacts of seabed mining is “incomplete and unproven”. It adds that the common consequence of all types of operations “is the obliteration of any marine life in the mined area and surrounding areas” due to the smothering effects of the plume created when unwanted matter is released back to the sea floor. And it is calling on the public to help prevent this “destructive industry” from occurring in New Zealand.
KASM has also described the second TTR submission as “horrendously complicated” and, in conjunction with Ngati Ruanui and Talley’s Fisheries Group, successfully took TTR to the Environment Court, with the court ruling in early November 2016 that TTR should release hundreds of pages of previously confidential material.
A TTR spokesperson says the court decision has clarified issues around disclosure of sensitive data for all parties, including TTR.
“We respect the decision by the Court and will release the technical information and third party economic data as directed.
“Given TTR’s commercial responsibilities we are confident that we have taken all reasonable steps in order to fulfil our duties to our shareholders and commercial partners with regards to the protection and safeguarding of confidential information and intellectual property assets.
“TTR remains hopeful that KASM, Ngati Ruanui, Talleys, and their members and associates, will now be thoroughly equipped, as they so forcibly asserted in the hearing, to provide an informed, qualified science-based assessment of the calibrations and source term inputs into the NIWA [National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research] plume models.
“TTR looks forward to the robust and direct examination of these assessments, analysis and reviews at the marine consent hearing commencing early next year. We are happy to be putting this procedural issue to one side to concentrate on our preparation for the hearing.”
In the long-term TTR hopes the EPA will make a positive decision on the venture during the first quarter of 2017 and, assuming the EPA grants the necessary consents, TTR hopes to start offshore mining operations in 2020.
TTR has also publicly rebutted what it describes as the “considerable misinformation” containing many inaccuracies and factual errors being put out by protest groups.
The company says it has already undertaken full and extensive engagement and consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, regulators, interest groups, and all affected affiliated Maori interests. It further says that in March 2015 it extended invitations to the EPA, Taranaki Regional Council (TRC), DOC, Maritime New Zealand and fisheries representatives, as well as to Ngati Ruanui, to visit a seabed diamond mining operation off the South African coast that uses similar machinery to that which TTR is proposing to use. The EPA, TRC, DOC and fisheries representatives accepted the invitation.
The internationally known De Beers Group is involved in this offshore mining operation and has extensive operational experience with remotely operated crawler mining systems on the seabed that suck up raw material then pump it to the surface for processing aboard a special vessel. De Beers Marine’s operations are in water depths of around 100 to 130 metres, whereas the resource TTR proposes processing is in shallower water, some 20 to 50 metres deep, and approximately 22 to 36 kilometres offshore from the town of Patea.
TTR further says an offshore survey by NIWA found no threatened or endangered species in or near the proposed project area, which TTR describes as “a largely featureless area of naturally shifting sands and sediments colonised by hardy species of common marine life of no unique or special ecological significance”.
TTR’s project pre-feasibility study is based on dredging 50 million tonnes of iron sand each year, separating about 10 percent titano-magnetite from the sediment off shore, and returning 90 percent of the sand to the seabed backfilling mined areas.
The sands will be processed offshore aboard a purpose-built integrated mining vessel (IMV) designed to operate through almost all known weather conditions in the STB. The iron sand will be extracted by remote-controlled 450-tonne seabed crawlers, excavating up to 8000 tonnes per hour, similar to those operated by DeBeers Marine off Namibia to recover diamonds. The IMV will have a purpose-built metallurgical processing plant on board, producing five million tonnes of titano-magnetite concentrate a year.
This concentrate will be stored initially aboard the IMV but later transferred as slurry to a trans-shipment vessel (TSV), dewatered and loaded into export vessels using dry bulk ship-to-ship loading systems and shipped directly to world markets.
TTR is also highlighting the local, regional and national economic benefits indicated by its pre-feasibility study that indicates the operation will add to the diversification of the Taranaki economy and generate local, regional and national economic benefits through employment and training, royalties, and taxes. Approximately 300 jobs will be created in Taranaki-Whanganui, more than 1600 nationally and there will be about $350 million spent on operating costs every year.
“The project, when in operation, will deliver substantial economic benefits to the region and New Zealand while employing the world’s best practice with sustainable environmental outcomes,” says TTR.
Meanwhile, mining iron sands from the black beaches of Taranaki is not new. Many attempts, both successful and otherwise, have been going on for more than 160 years.
Englishman John Perry, who owned an iron foundry in Cornwell, attempted to smelt some of the Taranaki iron sand during the 1840s, erecting a small furnace by the banks of the Huatoki River in New Plymouth.
However, only very small quantities of iron were produced. More modern efforts have included onshore iron sand mining operations at Waipipi, near Waverley, from 1971 to 1987, producing about 15.7 million tonnes of concentrate.