MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Concerns over mining in sea off PNG

Published by MAC on 2009-03-11
Source: The Australian

A CANADIAN company is boldly going where no mining giant has gone before.

But its plan to harvest rich mineral deposits from the sea floor off Papua New Guinea has some landowners fearing the marine equivalent of the country's Ok Tedi mining disaster.

To the north of the country, at depths of up to 1.6km in the Bismark Sea, Nautilus Minerals is carving out a new frontier.

The Canadian giant is leading the world in deep-water mining exploration and has plans to harvest the riches of 11ha of the copper and gold-rich seabed.

With the deposits, at today's prices, worth an estimated $US1 billion
($1.6 billion) the company is extremely motivated to overcome the practical difficulties of getting the stuff to the surface.

The riches of the deep are also attracting strong interest from other quarters.

In the past five years, companies in China, France, South Korea, Germany, India, Japan and Russia have started to explore deep-sea mining opportunities.

But Nautilus is leading the way with its Solwara 1 project in the Bismark Sea, which plans to use a combination of extraction technologies developed in the offshore oil industry.

The PNG Government has been tempted by the promised gains from the mining plan. Nautilus has put the economic benefit to the country at about $220 million. While the global financial crisis has delayed the start of the project, initially slated for 2010, Nautilus says it will happen.

In the meantime, the process to obtain PNG government approval is progressing.

Next month, key stakeholders will meet government officials as part of the final stages in the mining lease approval process. But Nautilus faces some significant opposition, including that from environmentalists who say sea-floor mining poses a huge threat that could have regional consequences.

Rick Steiner, a marine conservation specialist with the University of Alaska, is a harsh critic of Nautilus's environmental impact statement (EIS) and local landowners share his concerns.

He said the EIS was inadequate and he had urged the PNG Government to reject the mining plan.

"It is likely that the project would result in severe, prolonged and perhaps region-wide impacts to a globally rare and poorly understood biological community," he said.

"The relative impact of the proposed project on the habitat found only at deep-sea hydrothermal vents would be proportionately far greater than, for instance, impacts of terrestrial mines on global forest habitat."

Mr Steiner said the company's plans to mine for 30 months carried a high risk of endangering or making extinct new species yet to be described.

He is particularly concerned about the 130,000 tonnes of unconsolidated sediment and 115,000 tonnes of waste rock that the mine will produce and that will be pumped on to deeper seabeds nearby.

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