Scientists and environmentalists are urging an international moratorium on deep-sea mining after releasing a report indicating its impact on the Pacific Ocean and island states would be severe, extensive and last for generations.
The report also said mining for polymetallic nodules, potato-sized lumps found in the seabed that contain metals used in battery manufacturing and high-tech industries, would cause “essentially irreversible damage” to the region, including Kiribati the Cook Islands, Nauru, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and Tuvalu.
Entitled "Predicting the Impacts of Mining Deep Sea Polymetallic Nodules in the Pacific Ocean," the 52-page report represents a scientific consensus based on 250 peer-reviewed articles, and 80 NGOs are now calling for a moratorium as a result.
“There’s the removal of the nodules themselves and the sediment that will be stirred up and also the waste that’s going to be discharged from the mining process,” said Helen Rosenbaum, coordinator for the Deep Sea Mining Campaign.
“At this point we don’t know what’s going to be in that sediment, what kind of heavy metals might be there, how bio-available they are, that is how readily they might be taken up in the food chain.”
Increased demand for the metals -- cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese -- has bolstered deep-sea mining for polymetallic nodules.
The International Seabed Authority, an intergovernmental organization based in Kingston, Jamaica, has issued about 30 exploration licenses – 25 in the Pacific Ocean, and 18 of those in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which stretches from Kiribati to Mexico, where DeepGreen -- a Canadian mining company that plans to mine these metals with an eye toward electric vehicles -- hopes to be the first to begin operations by 2024.
DeepGreen Chief Executive Officer Gerard Barron was unimpressed by the report, saying deep-sea mining offers the best alternative to surface mining, which has a long history of pollution and the destruction of forests, habitats and wildlife.
“I think it was a bias, narrow view, which doesn’t address any the issues, by a group of people that have their hearts set on trying to stop the progress of this industry,” he said.
He added, though, that severe shortfalls in metals used in high-tech industries are emerging. Some were available under rainforests in countries such as Indonesia but extracting those metals would exact an enormous toll on the local environment, he said.
“The argument should be what has the lowest impact from an environmental and a societal perspective,” he said, adding the Clarion Clipperton Zone contained “enough nickel and cobalt there to electrify a billion electric vehicles."
“We have a choice to continue to go into these biodiverse areas and destroy these biodiverse habitats.
“Or we can ramp up ocean science studies and say: ‘Look if ever Mother Nature was to put a large abundant resource somewhere out of harm’s way, 4,000 meters below sea level, a thousand miles from the nearest land mass would seem to be a pretty good place.'"
Unrealistic financial expectations
However, environmentalists remain skeptical, warning cash-strapped island states – already feeling the effects of climate change – against unrealistic financial expectations from mining and the poor track record of surface miners in the region.
That includes a nine-year war fought on Bougainville which emerged from a dispute over a copper mine, extensive damage to the Fly River system in Papua New Guinea caused by the Ok Tedi open pit gold mine and long-running disputes over phosphate mining on Nauru.
Last year Canadian company Nautilus Minerals went bankrupt, abandoning its deep sea mining ambitions, which cost PNG about $120 million.
“We don’t know if there’s going to be other toxic substances such as processing agents in the mine-ways,” Rosenbaum added. “One thing we know is, it’s going to be constant plume of sediment and whatever the sediment is carrying for the life of the mine.”
The report found sperm whales, whale sharks, Leatherback turtles and bird life could be at as much risk from nutrient enrichment and metal toxicity as commercial fish such as tuna.
“Also, local communities in the Pacific are worried about their way of life being disrupted because they’re very connected to the ocean environment,” she said.
Emeline Siale Ilolahia, executive director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, echoed her sentiments.
“For me it was really like, ban the whole system from any mining until we have more scientific information available for our decision makers,” Ilolahia said.
“We are now in a situation of COVID-19 and we see in our countries are struggling to have funds to support the response in-country and then you always question in your mind, thinking; where has the money coming from mining gone?” she said.