Ocean ironsands mining consent application placed on hold
LATEST: Expectations of a decision within 20 days on TransTasman Resources' application to mine ironsands on the seabed in the Exclusive Economic Zone have gone on hold as the five member decision-making committee considering the bid unexpectedly adjourned the process.
That followed two days of summary submissions from both opponents of the scheme and TTR, which is the first company to seek permission for offshore mining under new law governing New Zealand's offshore EEZ.
"The Decision-making Committee has decided to adjourn the hearing to consider all information received during closings," the committee said in a statement.
"It will formally close the hearing once it is satisfied it has all the information it requires to make a decision. The Decision-making Committee will not accept any further information unless it specifically requests it."
The 20 day statutory timeframe for a decision on the project would only be triggered once the committee formally closed the hearing process. Opponents of the project have complained throughout the new fast-tracked process that they had too little time to assess and respond to information as it emerged and is recorded in evidence and transcripts running to several thousand pages.
The decision to adjourn follows the publication on Monday of an unexpectedly critical report on the project from staff at the EPA.
While the staff have no decision-making powers and did propose a way that a marine consent could potentially be granted, their advice - intended to help guide the committee's decision - sided with opponents who are concerned about environmental uncertainty associated with the project.
The EPA staff report prompted a strongly worded response today from Hugh Rennie, QC, representing TTR at the hearings, who said the company was "staggered" by some of the report's conclusions, which he claimed were at odds with expert witness evidence and agreed positions reached during the hearings.
Some proposals were "impractical and excessive" and the EPA staff had "struggled" with the concept of an adaptive management approach to the project, which would allow changes to mining practice in response to experience gained as the project progressed.
EARLIER: Ironsands miner ‘staggered’ by Environmental Protection Authority’s critical report
TransTasman Resources has urged a five-person decision-making committee considering its application to mine ironsands off the southern Taranaki coast to ignore a report prepared on the application by staff at the Environmental Protection Authority.
In final submissions on TTR's application for a marine consent to dredge iron ore from sand in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone, the company's legal counsel, Hugh Rennie, says the EPA staff report "is of little assistance to the DMC in deciding the matters which for the present consent application."
"We submit the evidence of the experts should be preferred over the unsubstantiated and unwarranted opinions of EPA staff," he said in final submissions to the DMC, which run to more than 100 pages.
TTR was "staggered" at the EPA staff report expressing concerns about "a large amount of uncertainty" surrounding the impacts of mining on the benthic ecology and wondered "if those who wrote it (and those have joined in the report) were actually present and listening during the hearing."
The EPA staff report was prepared as a non-binding guide for the DMC after almost two months of hearings and expert witness conferences around the North Island in the last two months on the first application for offshore mining ever considered in New Zealand.
Issued earlier this week, the report broadly sided with opponents of the mining project, who argue there are too many uncertainties about environmental impacts to allow a marine consent to be granted.
While EPA staff suggested a means by which consent could potentially be granted, the regulator's staff agreed "that, notwithstanding the further information provided in response to the EPA's requests, the application continues to leave uncertainty about the effects the proposed activities might have on the environment."
"A lack of information in some areas has meant we have been unable to develop conditions that are measurable and enforceable in those areas," the staff report said. "In particular, we have been unable to develop environmental performance objectives to guide an adaptive management approach."
However, TTR's final submissions charge that the EPA staff report "provided no references or explanation as to why it considers there is 'a large amount of uncertainty surrounding the effects of the TTR application on benthic ecology" and said the EPA appeared to "struggle" with the concept of adaptive management.
"They have not ... made any reference to expert evidence to support their conclusions."
TTR believes the mining operation would deliver economic benefits of around $50 million annually to New Zealand, while mining in a 65 square kilometre area some 22 to 36 kilometres off the coast of Patea.
Rennie described as "unexpected and astonishing" a recommendation on discharge regimes for dissolved metals that were "simply not achievable" and at odds with the conclusions of expert witnesses.
"Simply put, it is so unreasonable that no reasonable planning authority would impose it," he said. "This proposal is not supported or substantiated by any expert evidence. In fact, the experts all stated the opposite."
Other proposals were "completely impractical and excessive", given the conclusions of expert witnesses, and could lead to opponents trying to relitigate consents after their granting.
"We cannot reconcile the (EPA staff report) recommendations with the evidence, including as summarised by the EPA itself. Most of the recommendations are in conflict with the experts' findings.
"An anonymous relitigation of such matters without opportunity for cross examination or providing expert qualifications is not 'advice', nor is it of utility in decision-making," the submission says.
A decision on the application is due in the next 20 days.