Wellington-based Chatham Rock Phosphate (CRP) has rubbished claims by the deep-sea fishing industry that the granting of a 20-year mining permit to collect phosphate from the sea floor is a step towards marine devastation.
The permit was granted yesterday by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment under the amended Crown Minerals Act which came into force in May.
It allows CRP to vacuum the sea floor for phosphate nodules (for use in fertiliser) from an 820 square kilometre area of the Chatham Rise - home to New Zealand's only known juvenile hoki nursery ground.
CRP must still obtain a marine permit from the Environmental Protection Authority before it can start operations.
Deepwater Group chief executive George Clement said that if CRP could "take the phosphate in a surgical operation and not turn the environment upside down then we'd support it".
"Our concern is it will damage the central part of the Chatham Rise ecosystem and our sustainable fisheries."
Clement said the original proposal would have seen the sea floor vacuumed to a depth of one metre, killing everything in its path.
"They now say it's 20cm. Either way it's devastation."
CRP managing director Chris Castle said the Deepwater Group's claims about the extent of destruction and the depth of mining on the sea floor were false.
"It is 30cm and we return about 85 per cent of that, so we lower the sea floor by about two inches."
Castle added that although the permit allowed for an 820 sq km area to be mined, the intention was to mine just 450 sq km.
"The application is deliberately to allow fallow strips between where we mine and to leave areas of significant interest.
"There are a couple of geological features we want to leave. There's not much coral there but any coral outcrops which look interesting, we will definitely avoid those."
Forecasts by CRP say the project would make New Zealand $900 million richer and contribute $250m a year in exports and import substitution.
It was announced last year that Netherlands-based dredging giant Boskalis would take a 20 per cent stake in CRP in return for about $5m worth of work on the project. Boskalis would also get a seat on the CRP board.
Castle was yesterday in New York meeting other potential investors.
"The timing [of the permit approval] could not be better."
The mining application was assessed by the ministry's New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals branch. National manager minerals Sefton Darby said it was evaluated on criteria including the applicant's proposed work programme, technical and financial capability and understanding of the geological resource.
"The mining permit issued includes a detailed and public set of work programme requirements for the company to adhere to, before and during any mining operations."
CRP's final hurdle is gaining a marine consent from the Environmental Protection Authority, and an application would be lodged early next year.
Darby said that if the consent were granted, it would be several years before mining began.