The Deep Sea Mining (DSM) Campaign collaborates with organizations in Papua New Guinea to stop the Solwara 1 project. Helen Rosenbaum, founder of the campaign describes their work as advocacy based on scientific facts and evidence. “We are a group of associations and individuals concerned about the issue of deep sea mining. Our members come from all around the world. Helen kindly answered our questions about a project that is threatening the marine ecosystem in a region where Tara’s scientists have just completed an inventory of biodiversity. DSM campaign members do their own independently funded* research, and work closely with a range of other organizations. “Fortunately, no one here has yet acquired experience in the impacts of deep sea mining. We want to make sure we never acquire this experience.”
Please explain to us what the Solawa 1 project is about?
Solwara 1 is the world’s first seabed mine to get a license to operate. It will set a worldwide precedent if the project does go head. It is situated in the Bismarck Sea in Papua, New Guinea — a small sea surrounded by islands such as East New Britain, New Ireland Province and another small group of islands called Duke of York Islands — all part of the Bismarck Archipelago. It’s a project of a Canadian mining company called Nautilus Minerals and they, in conjunction with their major shareholders who also include the Papua-New-Guinea government (a 15% share in the project) have their sights set on developing a new model of mining.
So deep sea mining hasn’t been done anywhere else in the world yet? Can we talk about “experimentation”?
Originally the company denied that this was a big experiment. Our colleagues in Papua New Guinea have been saying for many years that they refuse to be “guinea pigs” for experimental seabed mining. Recently, Nautilus itself has been promoting the experimental nature of the project in their own media releases. What they are going to gain in terms of mineral wealth is really not the main point of this exercise. That’s the reason they haven’t done all the standard tests a mining company would normally do to check the ore body. The main point is actually to test the equipment and see what the impacts of mining hydrothermal vents will be.
Example of Volcanoes in Papua New Guinea: Mount Vulcan and Mount Tavurvur – © Vincent Hilaire / Tara Expeditions Foundation
They intend to mine in a volcanic area?
Yes, this region of the Bismarck sea is very seismically active. The famous volcano on Rabaul still erupts from time to time. Over the centuries, hydrothermal vents have been undisturbed on the sea floor there. In this particular site of Solwara 1, gold and copper are at high concentrations around the vents on the seabed. So Nautilus wants to test the equipment and see if it can meet the challenges existing in this very harsh environment. At a depth of 1.6 km underwater, the pressure is tremendous and temperatures are extremely contrasting: 400°C coming out of the hydrothermal vents, mixing with very cold seawater, in a highly acidic environment.
Scientists on board Tara were amazed by the unique marine biodiversity while diving in Kimbe Bay, West New Britain. A biodiversity yet unknown and unexplored. Deep down, we can also assume there are unique ecosystems.
Exactly! Our concern about mining in hydrothermal vents is that these unique ecosystems will be destroyed, even before scientists have been able to research them. There’s very little understanding of how ecosystems at great depths interact with others – those which human populations and other marine species rely on. For example, tuna fisheries are a major industry in Papua New Guinea. The movement of organisms and particles between surface water, middle layers and pelagic zones, down to the deep sea — we are only starting to understand this.
Have environmental impact analyses been conducted by the Nautilus company?
Over the past few years we’ve been requesting extra documentation about the licensing of the mine, environmental permits, and other conditions imposed on the mining company. We’ve also asked the mining company to provide additional toxicity studies. Lack of such studies is a key failing of their Environmental Impact Statement. According to the mining company, they have done these studies. But they are not available in the public domain!
A family in Ulisalolo. Deep sea mining may also be a threat to their own waters – © Vincent Hilaire / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Do we have any understanding of what the impacts of DSM would be?
The mining process itself will generate plumes of sediments suspended in the water. Other research has shown such plumes can move up to 200 km. But we don’t know what material will be in the plumes generated by Solwara 1. Will there be heavy metals in these plumes? What kind of chemical forms will these metals take at different depths? This would determine how rapidly organisms can absorb them. We are talking about a region where the surrounding coastal communities depend on fishing for their livelihood!
How far is the Solwara 1 project from these communities?
The Solwara 1 mine site is about 60 km from Rabaul in East New Britain, only 25 km from the coast of New Ireland Province, and about 40 km from the Duke of York Islands. It’s actually right in the middle of the traditional fishing grounds of those islands. These communities have not given their informed consent to this project — a basic right established in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For all such projects that will affect people’s lives, they should be able to give their consent freely, before the project takes place, and with full information about the project. This certainly hasn’t occurred in Papua New Guinea for most mining projects, and it certainly hasn’t occurred for Solwara 1.
So the project might have an impact on communities?
These are island and coastal communities. Fishing is their livelihood. Whatever finds its way into the food chain is really going to affect them. These communities trade their fish with people from inland as well. The way the mining company plans to operate is to move quickly from one site to another. By the time these impacts show up in the food chain and perhaps have toxic effects on human and marine populations, who will be considered responsible for it? The mining company may not be in that part of the ocean anymore!
Are there any other projects like this one around the world?
Many companies hold exploration licenses: a conservative estimate suggests that over 1.5 million square kilometers of Pacific Ocean floor is under an exploration leasehold. Nautilus is a small company struggling for funds, but if they can prove that this works, that’s when the mainstream companies will step in and buy them out. That’s the routine in the mining industry. In this case, it’s interesting to notice there’s a major Anglo-American mining company involved with Nautilus. For them, it’s also about experimenting — having a foot in the door, in case it does work. They want to be at the forefront. This is the brave new face of mining around the world!
A fisherman from a local community in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea – © Noëlie Pansiot / Tara Expeditions Foundation
What is the position of the Papua New Guinea Government about the environmental risks?
Papua New Guinea is an investor in the mine and is also trying to play the regulator. That’s not a viable proposition. Also, they don’t have the capacity to monitor for impacts. No one else except the mining company will have the capacity to know what is going on down there. There will be no independent regulation of this mine. Finally, there’s no capacity in Papua New Guinea to deal with accidents or disasters that might result from this mine. As we said, it’s a seismically active area, also subject to extreme weather events. We’ve spoken to the Disaster Emergency Officers at the provincial level and they themselves say there’s nothing they could do about spillages or pipe breakages.
 See sections on Risk factors in Annual information forms for financial years 2015 and 2016. For example:
“Our operations are speculative due to the high-risk nature of business related to the exploration and acquisition of rights to potential mineable deposits of metals. These risk factors could materially affect the Company’s future results and could cause actual events to differ materially from those described in forward-looking statements relating to our Company.” (FY 2016, p 52)
“… Performance, availability, reliability, maintenance, wear and life of equipment are unknown. There can be no guarantee that sub-sea engineering and recovery systems can be developed or if developed, will be employable in a commercially-viable manner.” (FY 2015, p54)
“… while Company studies have indicated a low likelihood of risk to the aquatic environment from mining activities, the actual impact of any SMS [seafloor massive sulphide] mining operations on the environment has yet to be determined.” (FY 2015, p61)
“Nautilus has not completed and does not intend to complete a preliminary economic assessment, pre-feasibility study or feasibility study before completing the construction and first deployment of the Seafloor Production System at the Solwara 1 Project.”
“No independent Qualified Person has confirmed the amount of these costs or recommended that these costs be incurred. There is significant risk with this approach and no assurance can be given that the Seafloor Production System, if fully funded and completed for deployment at the Solwara 1 Project, will successfully demonstrate that seafloor resource development is commercially viable.” (FY 15, p52)
Reports: Includes three reports produced by the Deep Sea Mining campaign in regards to Nautilus Minerals Solwara 1 project in PNG : http://deepseaminingoutofourdepth.org/report/
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