Seabed miner has permit

Golden Bay-based Chatham Rock phosphate has crossed a major hurdle in its plan to mine phosphate nodules on the Chatham Rise with the granting of a mining permit this week.

The first permit to be granted under the amended Crown Minerals Act, it will last for 20 years and covers 820 square kilometres of seabed between the Canterbury coast and the Chatham Islands.

The company predicts the project will make New Zealand $900 million richer and contribute $250m a year in exports and import substitution.

But the fishing industry is against it, saying it threatens one of New Zealand's most important nursery areas and could cost the country $1.6 billion in seafood revenue over its project life.

CRP has teamed up with giant Dutch multinational dredging and marine services company Royal Boskalis in a plan to suck up the phosphate using a giant vacuum cleaner based on a large ship, unload it at South Island ports and sell it unprocessed to the fertiliser industry in New Zealand and overseas.

The company's managing director, Chris Castle, said the permit was a significant step for New Zealand, the company and the mining industry.

"This is our most important milestone to date.

"It means we're half way to being permitted, so the permit significantly de-risks the company."

Chatham Rise rock phosphate could be used as an ultra-low cadmium direct-application fertiliser and would reduces run-off effects on New Zealand waterways by up to 80 per cent.

"As a local source it will provide fertiliser security for New Zealand, can be blended with other forms of fertiliser to reduce cadmium levels in processed fertilisers and reduce New Zealand's transport-related carbon footprint and costs."

Mr Castle said CRP's remaining milestone was a marine consent, which would be applied for early next year.

The company felt confident it could demonstrate the environmental impacts of its operations would be minor and localised, he said.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment granted the permit after the application was assessed by its New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals branch on criteria including the proposed work programme, technical and financial capability, and understanding of the geological resource.

NZP&M national minerals manager Sefton Darby said the permit included a detailed and public set of work programme requirements.

The marine consent application would have to be made to the Environmental Protection Authority with a separate consultation process.

"While it's still very early days and it would be several years before mining began if a marine consent was granted, the economic potential of this project could be significant.

"Part of that economic impact would come from using Chatham rock phosphate as a partial substitute for some of the phosphate that is currently imported from Morocco for use in agricultural fertilisers," Mr Darby said.

Fishing industry co-operative organisation the Deepwater Group said CRP had failed to demonstrate that its mining would not damage the seabed ecosystem or fisheries on the Chatham Rise.

"We expect this to be fully tested in the marine consent process next year," said chief executive George Clement.

Mr Clement said the major fishing companies the group represents weren't against mining, but "widespread environmental destruction".

"If the phosphate could be surgically removed without turning the seabed upside down then that would be entirely different than what is proposed."

He has previously said the CRP proposal is to "strip-mine" the seabed for short-term gains ahead of the long-term ability of New Zealand's fisheries to thrive.

Greenpeace has also said it will fight the plan.

CRP, headed by Mr Castle and his partner Linda Sanders, who live at Onekaka but maintain a Wellington office, has been working on the phosphate project for several years.

The resource was discovered by New Zealand scientists in 1952, and extensively researched in the 1970s and '80s, deemed uneconomic to exploit at that time. Since then the price of phosphate has climbed steeply, and the listed company has attracted investors from overseas and around New Zealand.

Its share price rose 3c to 31c yesterday after news of the mining permit was announced.

The Nelson Mail