Trans Tasman Resources gets green light to mine iron sands

Two committee members, including chairman Alick Shaw, voted in favor of the project and there was a "strong dissenting view" from the other two.

Trans-Tasman Resources will now invest upwards of $600 million to build and commission its project now it has a green light to mine iron sands from the ocean floor in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone in the South Taranaki Bight.

"We are delighted with the decision. It's critical to our project going forward. We had to have the marine consent so that we can proceed with the final bankable feasibility study and develop the project," said Alan Eggers, executive chairman of TTR. Eggers said TTR is "well across" a series of conditions that have been imposed and said the majority were in fact proposed by the miner.

TTR has sought permission to extract 50 million tonnes of seabed material a year to export up to 5 million tonnes of iron sand per year twice now. It was first rejected in 2014 when a committee ruled the environmental impacts of the proposal were too difficult to gauge on the evidence available. The company went back to the drawing board and a second hearing was held between February and May this year. Eggers said the company spent around $7 million on the first hearing and between $13.5 million and $14 million on the second. The project will cost between $570 million and $600 million to build.

Eggers said it would generate 300 jobs in the immediate area and 1,600 nationwide as well as an annual $400 million in export revenue. According to Eggers, Trans-Tasman Resources will spend an annual $250 million in operation costs and servicing, regardless of the project's profitability.

The project, however, has sparked controversy as those opposed argue it will change the physical, chemical and biological nature of the seawater and degrade the quality of the oceans as a whole.

The sand is mined using a very slow moving crawler which creeps along the seafloor "vacuuming" up sand and seawater and pumping it to a vessel. The iron ore is magnetically separated and the de-ored sand, about 90 percent of the total, is immediately re-deposited.

According to TTR, the vast majority of the redeposited sand will settle back on the seabed and effectively fill areas previously dredged by the crawler. However, the process will form a "plume" in the water column, which will drift depending on tides, ocean currents and general weather conditions in an often turbulent part of the Tasman Sea. In both hearings, the main focus was on the impact of that plume.

Allan Freeth, chief executive of the Environmental Protection Authority, underscored the decision - made by a committee appointed by the EPA - was "complex and challenging." The committee received 13,733 submissions of those 13,477 requested that the application be denied.

Freeth said two committee members, including chairman Alick Shaw, voted in favor of the project and there was a "strong dissenting view" from the other two. As a result, Shaw used his chairman casting vote in favor of granting the consents, said Freeth. The fact that there was a split decision does reflect that complexity, he said.

However, the conditions that have been imposed on the project "provide an appropriate degree of caution" over the life of the 35-year project, said Freeth. Among other things, those conditions include a pre-commencement monitoring plan that must collect two years' worth of data before mining commences. They also monitor the effects of the so-called plume while other conditions address issues such as the impact of noise.

An appeal to the High Court is now possible within a 15-working day period, but must be on question of law, he said. The consent will not commence until any appeals have been resolved, something he said could "take a considerable amount of time."

Lobby groups Kiwis Against Seabed Mining and Greenpeace and local iwi are among those who voiced strong opposition and Kiwis Against Seabed Mining said it will appeal today's EPA's decision to "greenlight a dangerous seabed mining proposal in the South Taranaki Bight."

Kevin Hackwell, Forest & Bird chief conservation adviser, said they were very disappointed with the decision and the very fact that one of the conditions is a pre-commencement monitoring plan underscores there was not enough available information. He said Forest & Bird were reviewing the committee's document and would make a decision on any appeal within the deadline.

The opposition Green Party said it will aim to block the project with a moratorium on all sea-bed mining, to protect the habitat of several whale species, including blue whales, it said in a statement. "TTR's proposal is in the place where the world's largest whales feed and the smallest dolphins live, so why would we risk it with experimental seabed mining?" said Green Party mining spokesperson Gareth Hughes.

Meanwhile, the decision was welcomed by Chatham Rock Phosphate, which failed to get clearance to mine phosphate nodules from the seabed on the Chatham Rise and is now working on a new application following legislative changes that came into effect last month.

Freeth, however, noted that other companies were looking closely at the decision but warned that each project would be weighed on its own specific merits. "I don't think this sets a precedent at all, but some may take it as an encouragement," he said.


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