NRI research fellow: deepsea mining is risky business

28/08/2012 17:48

Will the Nautilus Minerals' Solwara Project affect East New Britain province fishermen and their families?





By Nalau Bingeding

THIS is a reality of life. Every development comes at a cost to any organism (including man) that occupies an area of land, air or sea. The cost of that development can be environmental, social or economical, and the impact of that development can be spread over time and space. Therefore, the proposed deep sea mining by Nautilus Minerals cannot merely be assumed to have no impact on the environment and organisms that occupy the Bismarck Sea and beyond, in both space and time.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a land blessed with abundant mineral resources, and much of the land and sea have been mapped out for exploration and mining. Currently more than 10 large scale mines are in operation on land, and there is possibility for more mines on land to be opened up in the near future. However, the socio-economic impacts of these 10 or more so large scale mines have had little rub-off effect on the country’s population at large. So what is the point of opening up more mines when 80% of the country’s population sees little or no benefit of mining activities?

It is a fact of life that minerals are non-renewable resources because they cannot be re-grown like trees if they are depleted. It is possible for mineral resources to be renewed through the activities of nature, but that will simply not happen in the lifetime of our current generation.  Therefore, the sustainability of mineral resources is paramount to the well-being of every organism that will occupy time and space in this nation right now and into the unforeseeable future.

We do not need to look far to understand the need for sustainability of mineral resources to the economy of our nation. Our neighboring Pacific Island nation of Nauru is a good example of what can go wrong with poor management of mineral resources.

In 1906 the Germans began mining phosphate on Nauru. Later on the British, the Australians and New Zealanders joined in the mining of phosphate on Nauru. With a very small population, the phosphate mining made Nauruans some of the richest people on Earth on a per capita basis. However, it was not until the 2000s that phosphate reserves on Nauru ran out.

Today Nauru is bankrupt because the Trust Fund set up from phosphate money had been tampered with by politicians. The shipping company and a bank set up from phosphate money are not doing well right now, and Nauru cannot resuscitate its economy. What are left of Nauru right now are is degraded landscape and about 10 thousand people, most of whom are diabetics who continuously need dialysis because their kidneys are not functioning normally. The country could not depend on ecotourism or other sectors to resuscitate its economy since nothing was done to rehabilitate the environment or fund other sectors of the economy since the 1900s.

The case of Nauru is a lesson to PNG. Although we are blessed with abundant mineral reserves, the sustainability of these resources is not guaranteed if we cannot manage them properly. What needs to be done is for us to develop our minerals and other natural resources in concert with the basic needs of our increasing population – this is known as “Need Based Development”. We do not have to play to the tune of multinational corporations who are here today and gone tomorrow and will not face the consequences of unsustainable mining that our present and future generations will face. Gold dredging in the Bulolo valley in the 1930s and the recent civil war on Bougainville are some historical lessons on mineral sustainability to our economy we should learn from and not repeat the same mistakes. Moreover, we do not need to rush the development of our mineral resources based on the whims of a few politicians and bureaucrats who see mining as a bridge to becoming filthy rich overnight.

Furthermore, the Environment Act 2000 is a technically flawed document. This Act has compromised the value of the terrestrial environment and deprived customary landowners of their rights to adequate equity and compensation for the loss of their pristine environments in regard to large scale developments in this country. Forest die-back along the banks of the Fly River and the recent spate of dead fish in the Watut and Markham rivers are some of the testimonies that demonstrate how pathetic this document is.

Therefore, what benefit is the Environment Act 2000 to the marine environment and the coastal people who sustain their livelihood and subsistence from the sea? The magnitude and scope of deep sea mining on the marine environment is an unknown quantity, so what guarantee of protection does the Environment Act give to the marine environment and peoples whose lives depends on the sea?

Our record with monitoring land based mining activities is pathetic. DEC does not have the capability to monitor mine discharges from land based mines into rivers and the seas. DEC depends on mining companies to provide it with data on a weekly basis, but there is no guarantee that the data provided has not been tampered with or if it has any scientific integrity. If DEC cannot handle discharge from land based mines into the rivers and seas, what could it do with mining that takes place at 1600m below the sea surface?

Environmental Impact Statements produced by developers and submitted to DEC have become the ridicule of some academics and NGOs in recent years. The quality of many of these Environmental Impact Statements do not meet scientific scrutiny but are entertained by DEC, and in many cases, Environmental Permits have been issued without due diligence.  One Environmental Impact Statement for an SABL in one area had pictures of birds from Siberia (Russia) incorporated as proof of wildlife from that particular area, but this document was accepted by DEC. This is hilarious, and shows how low DEC can stoop to compromise the value of the natural environment and the lives of the people of this country. Therefore, what guarantee is there that an Environmental Permit will not be issued even if the Environmental Impact Statement submitted by Nautilus for the deep sea mining does not meet rigorous scientific scrutiny?

The process to which large scale developments are scrutinized and Environmental Permits are granted in this country is technically flawed. The process gives ultimate authority for issuing an Environmental Permit for any level 3 or 2 projects to the Director of DEC. The Minister for Environment and Conservation only approves the Environmental Impact Statement in principal, but the issuance of the Environmental Permit is the prerogative of the DEC Director. The process does not even allow for Environmental Impact Statements or other documents of projects to be taken to the NEC for perusal and endorsement – after the Minister for Environment and Conservation approves the document in principal, the DEC Director handles everything thereafter. So what guarantee is there that this technically flawed process is not going to be used for the deep sea mining project?

There is no process available for stakeholders to sit around a table and rigorously scrutinize an Environmental Impact Statement for a large scale development before it is taken to the NEC for endorsement. Despite DEC making the Environmental Impact Statement available to the public for viewing, the roundtable discussion is the most important step where civil societies, government agencies, the developer and other interested parties sit around the table and grill each other over the quality and benefit of the project to all parties concern. Currently, DEC implements most of the formalities in relation to Environmental Impact Statements, and Environmental Permits while other government agencies are used as rubber-stamps for large scale projects, and civil societies and customary landowners are mere spectators. Therefore, unless something drastic is done otherwise the same procedure will be applied to the deep sea mine project.

As a regulator of the environment, DEC is required to carry out a Baseline Study in a proposed project area before any actual work begins. The data collected by DEC is to be analyzed, compiled, and used as reference data to monitor the operations of the project throughout its lifespan. If DEC finds through its regular monitoring that the operations of a project has caused an environmental parameter to be abnormally different from the compiled baseline data, the department can then advise the developer to make adjustments to rectify the situation or shut down the operations until corrective measures are put in place. Nevertheless, Baseline Studies have rarely been carried out by DEC, and developers easily get away with environmental issues at the expense of the natural environment and customary landowners because there is no Baseline Data to prove that something abnormal has happened. The recent case of dead fishes in the Watut and Markham rivers is an example of what can happen with compensation claims when there is no Baseline Data to prove that something unusual has happened. So, the question is, do we already have a Baseline Data for the deep sea mine?

  • Nalau Bingeding is a Research Fellow under  the Land Development Research Program of the Wealth Creation Pillar at the National Research Institute.