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The environmental impacts of plans to mine ironsands off the ocean floor in the South Taranaki are too uncertain for regulators to know how to draft rules to manage them, staff from the Environmental Protection Authority say in a report ahead of final hearings on the proposal.
TransTasman Resources is seeking a marine consent under new law governing New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone to suck sands rich in iron ore from the ocean floor between 22 and 36 kilometres offshore for export to Asian steel mills.
The process would see the 90 percent of sand that is not iron-bearing deposited back on the seafloor. Final submissions on the application will be delivered in Wellington over the next two days to the decision-making committee (DMC) appointed by the EPA to recommend or decline a marine consent, after a month of hearings around the North Island.
The application is the first to seek permission to mine the seafloor off the New Zealand coast and the first under new EEZ law.
"The conditions provided by the EPA staff are not a complete set because 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 to the EPA-appointed decision-making committee (DMC) on the application says.
"In particular, we have been unable to develop environmental performance objectives to guide an adaptive management approach."
Many of the submissions to a month of hearings held around the country by the DMC have concentrated on how the sand plumes created by the mining process could affect marine life, and the impact on wave action of the pits and trenches the mining process would create.
"The EPA staff agree with submitters to the application 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.
"Many of the effects of the proposed activities cannot be accurately evaluated until after baseline monitoring proposed by TTR has occurred," the report says.
While TTR submitted it could take an "adaptive management" approach, which would see it adapt the process as its impacts were learnt, the report says EPA staff do not consider a small scale or short term adaptive management approach would "favour the caution and environmental protection that the EEZ Act requires."
TTR also identifies such an approach as a "significant commercial issue for its operation."
"Adaptive management of that sort is unlikely to enable the actual or cumulative effects of TTR's proposal on the environment and existing interests to be determined. We do not anticipate that there would be immediate acute effects generated by commencing activities on a small scale or for a short duration but instead expect that effects will manifest as a result of the continued presence of the activity over a long period."
Nor do EPA staff support an alternative proposal from TTR to stage activity in a way that allows a limited start to mining with monitoring required before the next stage of activity starts.
"This approach requires an understanding of when significant effects are likely to manifest following an activity, and this information has not been presented in the evidence. It is possible that such an approach may also compound the adverse effects on benthos," the report says.
"EPA staff consider that a key question for the DMC will be whether it has the best available information on the effects of the application and whether the residual uncertainties can be addressed by adaptive management such that caution and environmental protection will be appropriately favoured," the report says. "In the event that the DMC cannot be satisfied, the EEZ Act points it towards a decision to decline consent."
While TTR has proposed setting high-level qualitative objectives for environmental and baseline monitoring over two years of operations, the EPA staff believes "the degree of uncertainty is too great to be satisfactorily addressed through the EPA certifying the Environmental Monitoring and Management Plan at a later date."