Seven things you need need to know about seabed mining in New Zealand

SIMON O'CONNOR/Stuff.co.nz

Seabed Mining: The Basics

Years after it was first proposed, seabed mining of iron ore off the South Taranaki coast has finally been granted consent. 

In a 368-page decision, The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) on Thursday granted a 35-year consent to Trans Tasman Resources Limited (TTRL) to take millions of tonnes of iron ore from the sea floor for processing in China. This was TTRL's second application after the EPA turned down their first.

While the consent has been granted, the decision can be appealed and Kiwis Against Seabed Mining have already confirmed they will fight the decision.

Trans Tasman Resources/YouTube

TTR's project overview video, explaining how the mining will work.

It's a complex case with solid arguments for and against that are not easy to simplify. But if you want to start to understand, here are seven seabed mining basics explained.  

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1. What is seabed mining?

Members of Ngati Ruanui of Patea protested against mining company TTR's proposal on Parliament grounds in Wellington in ...
MONIQUE FORD / Fairfax NZ

Members of Ngati Ruanui of Patea protested against mining company TTR's proposal on Parliament grounds in Wellington in September 2016.

Seabed mining involves scouring the ocean floor for valuable minerals such as iron ore and gold, then extracting and sorting them from ordinary sand. 

To put it simply, the sand is sucked up to a floating production vessel, the valuable content removed and shipped away for further processing while the unwanted material is pumped back on to the seabed from where it came. 

2. So why did people object?

MONIQUE FORD / Stuff.co.nz

Three bus loads of Ngati Ruanui from Patea and members of KASM deliver a petition to Green party MP's calling for a moratorium on seabed mining.

The seafloor is home to invertebrates and other tiny organisms that live in, or depend on, other organisms in the sand to survive, and many argue that sucking up tonnes of sand will displace the many species that make their home on the ocean floor. 

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However, whether these organisms are important or rare is a bone of contention, with mining companies like Trans Tasman Resources claiming the seabed where it intends to mine is largely a barren wasteland, while activist groups like Kiwis Against Seabed Mining say it's teeming with life.

3. Where are we at now?

The 66 square kilometres off the South Taranaki coast where Trans Tasman Resources have consent to mine iron ore.
TTR

The 66 square kilometres off the South Taranaki coast where Trans Tasman Resources have consent to mine iron ore.

Trans Tasman Resources (TTR) now have consent to mine a 66sqkm area off the South Taranaki coast, an area rich in ore deposits, hence the region's iconic black sand. 

The company wants to basically use a massive robot vacuum to suck up to 50 million tonnes of sand from the seabed to an offshore production vessel each year.  Once on the processing ship, the iron ore will be extracted using a giant magnet. The ore will then be put on a ship to eventually be sent to China for processing while the millions tonnes of iron-less sand will be deposited back to the sea floor. 

This will occur roughly 36km out to sea in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

SIMON O'CONNOR/Stuff.co.nz

Redacted pages from TTR's mining application

The consent to mine was granted by an organisation set up by the government called the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). It assesses applications in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to utilise marine resources, judges each and awards or withholds mining permits. 

This was the second time TTR applied to mine off the South Taranaki coast. The EPA rejected its application in 2014, on the grounds that it had not consulted local iwi and the environmental effects of the mining were still a grey area. 

4. Who are the main players?

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer of Ngati Ruanui, the main iwi affected by the mining proposal was against granting TTR consent.
GRANT MATTHEW/Fairfax NZ

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer of Ngati Ruanui, the main iwi affected by the mining proposal was against granting TTR consent.

Trans Tasman Resources is a New Zealand registered and owned company formed in 2007 which has invested more than $60 million so far in its goal to mine South Taranaki's seabed. The company is headed by New Zealander Alan Eggers and backed by Auckland-based solicitor John Seton and Ronghua Zhang, who is the chair of Chinese company Rockcheck Steel Group. 

Ronghua Zhang comes in at number 23 in Forbes China 100 Top Businesswomen List.

Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (Kasm) is a New Zealand activist group headed by Phil McCabe, and their title pretty well states what they stand for.

Kiwis Against Seabed Mining chair Phil McCabe gives a talk in New Plymouth about TTR's 2016 application.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Fairfax NZ

Kiwis Against Seabed Mining chair Phil McCabe gives a talk in New Plymouth about TTR's 2016 application.

Ngati Ruanui is the South Taranaki iwi which has mana whenua - a link or guardianship role - over the area, and opposed TTR's application. 

5. What are the benefits of seabed mining?

TTR say its mining activities will create an additional $350m in national expenditure, generate $160m in Gross Domestic Product and create more than 1650 jobs across the country, half of which will be in Taranaki. 

The simulated crawler TTR would use to suck up sand from the seafloor.
SUPPLIED

The simulated crawler TTR would use to suck up sand from the seafloor.

6. Why was TTR's application rejected in 2014?

One of the EPA's primary concerns with the last application was the effect a sediment plume would have on the seabed environment, since then it has been a primary concern of activists against the mining plan. 

The worry is that sand uplifted and deposited back to the sea floor would disperse over a massive area, casting a shadow in the water, reducing light availability and possibly affecting growth and survival of animals and invertebrates in the area. 

TTRL Trans-Tasman Resources Limited

Footage of the seafloor off the coast of Patea where TTR want to mine iron ore.

7. Is seabed mining happening anywhere else in New Zealand? 

No, the only two applications to mine the seabed in New Zealand have been declined by the Environmental Protection Authority. 

Trans Tasman Resources' application to mine in South Taranaki was denied in 2014 and Chatham Rock Phosphate's application to mine for phosphate off the Chatham Rise was also declined in the same year. 

TTR's processing boat would be one of the largest in New Zealand waters.
SUPPLIED

TTR's processing boat would be one of the largest in New Zealand waters.

However, a company called Pacific Offshore Mining has permits to explore, but not mine at this stage, minerals off the Bay of Plenty coastline and to explore off the coast of New Plymouth. 

Timeline of seabed mining:

* 2007: Trans Tasman Resources is formed.

* Late 2013: It applies to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to mine 66 square kilometres of seabed 36 kilometres off the South Taranaki coast.

* 2014: The EPA reject TTR's application on the grounds they had not done enough consultation, and the environmental effects were still unknown. 

* August 2016: TTR lodge another application with the EPA, stating it has engaged in wider consultation and done further scientific studies on environmental impact. 

* August 2017: TTR application for consent to mine is granted by the EPA .

 - Stuff

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