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Is seafloor mining too risky?


17 May 2007

An article highlighting the environmental risks posed by deep sea mining has been heavily criticised by a company currently exploring the potential of ocean mineral reserves. 

Writing in Science, Jochen Halfar from the University of Toronto, Canada, and Rodney Fujita from the US campaigning organisation Environmental Defense, raise concerns about the disturbance of unique organisms by 'massive sulfide mining' from the ocean floor. They call for a tighter legal framework to control mining, and more independent environmental impact assessments of seabed sites which are currently being explored by prospectors. 

Seabed hydrothermal vents that form rich metallic sulfide deposits, including copper and gold, were discovered in 1977, but advanced mining technology and soaring metal prices have more recently made them viable prospects. At these sites, volcanic activity causes the dissolution of minerals. These are precipitated into chimney formations called black smokers. Mineral-rich smokers are not only of interest to mining companies, they are also host to diverse ecosystems and are being explored for pharmaceutical and biotechnological applications. 

But David Heydon, CEO of Nautilus Minerals has called the article emotive and misleading. Natuilus is currently exploring a vent field off the coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG) (see Chemistry World, January 2007, p38). 

Safeguards

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea sets out environmental safeguards for ocean prospecting, but individual nations have the right to grant exploration licenses within a certain zone that usually extends 200 nautical miles from their shores.

However, Halfar and Fujita point out that the impacts of mining practices might not be limited to one country and that issuing mining permits may breach international environmental law. They call for a global regulatory process to monitor potentially harmful practices. With Nautilus' exploration of PNG's waters well underway, 'this seems an opportune time to plan an ocean governance system,' they added.

Heydon claims that restricting deep-sea mining as  Halfar and Fujita suggest could have huge implications for developing nations. 'Papua New Guinea relies on mining to provide essential amenities for its population,' he said. 'Cessation of mining could halt the country's development. They fail to see how many lives this will cost - children will die because of this article. Would these authors balance a child's life against that of a tube worm at a vent?'

Halfar and Fujita insist they are not seeking a cessation of mining. 'Our hope is that an accommodation can be found so that high value economic activities can be consistent with environmental protection,' they responded.

Independent assessment

Nautilus incorporates environmental impact assessment into its exploration and Heydon suggests that the article 'completely disregards the credibility of the independent scientists carrying out this work'. But Halfar and Fujita point to a potential conflict of interest in industry-sponsored impact assessments. They advocate 'independent assessments, sponsored by governments for example, which are less subject to conflicts of interest that may prejudice results.' 

Although Natuilus is named several times within the article, Heydon says that the authors did not canvas his company for their views, although Halfar and Fujita maintain that they made several attempts to make contact. 

Yet Heydon thinks there is a wider issue at stake. 'This basically states that some countries can't have the high standard of living of developed countries,' he said. 

Victoria Gill

References

J Halfar and R M Fujita, Science,  2007, DOI: 10.1126/science.1138289 

Also of interest

Treasures from the deep

Mining companies are exploring underwater volcanic vents, hoping to extract metals such as gold and copper. Victoria Gill looks at the technical, environmental and political hurdle...

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