Prinesha Naidoo
4 minute read
11 Dec 2015
12:31 pm

Environmentalists seabed mining warning

Prinesha Naidoo

Say marine phosphate mining off SA’s shores poses threat to marine ecosystems and commercial fishing.

South African environmentalists have added to the growing global dissent against seabed mining, calling for a moratorium on exploration related to bulk marine sediment mining in local waters.

According to Saul Roux, a legal campaigner at the Centre for Environmental Rights, bulk sediment marine mining is “equivalent to strip mining in the ocean”. This, as the process involves using a trailing suction hopper dredger (a ship with powerful suction pumps that run to the seabed) to dredge the seabed up to a depth of about three metres in order to remove marine sediment. This sediment is then transferred to the shore where minerals are extracted before excess sediment and water is released back into the ocean.

Since 2012, the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) has granted three prospecting rights to Diamond Fields International and Green Flash Trading to use trailing suction hopper dredgers to mine approximately 150 000km² of the Western Cape seabed for phosphates, macro-nutrients used to fertilise agricultural crops. While companies used concerns about food security to motivate for these rights, given South Africa’s vast terrestrial reserves Roux believes any phosphates mined in local waters would be for export. “It seems completely irrational, they would essentially be destroying one form of food security on arguments around another,” he said, citing threats to the country’s commercial fishing industry as well as to communities which rely on fishing for their livelihoods.

According to research by The Safeguard our Seabed Coalition, the country’s commercial fisheries directly employs 27 000 people with an additional 100 000 people working in fishery-related enterprises. Bulk marine sediment mining does not fall under Operation Phakisa, through which government aims to “unlock the economic potential of South Africa’s ocean” by creating multi-billion rand industries and around 1 million jobs in industries such as marine transport and manufacture, offshore oil and gas, aquaculture and marine protection services.

Neither Diamond Fields International nor Green Flash Trading’s applications for exploration rights quantified the potential socio-economic impacts of the marine phosphate mining. But the feasibility study of a similar project, proposed in Namibian Waters, stated that 400 to 500 people would be employed, most during the development phase.

As a result of opposition by environmental groups and the country’s fishing industry, in September 2013 the Namibian government placed an 18-month moratorium on marine phosphate mining. It also commissioned independent scoping studies and environmental impact assessment research on its maritime zone. While the country has long benefitted from marine diamond mining, in which either hoses or diameter drills are used to bring diamond bearing gravel from the ocean-floor to the surface, opponents argued that bulk marine sediment mining is more disruptive.

Writing for the South African Institute of International Affairs, Alex Benkenstein said among the concerns raised was “the release of concentrations of hydrogen sulphide and reduced phosphorous compounds in sediment, which are toxic and could lead to low oxygen levels in the water. The release of heavy metals from seabed sediments could also lead to these elements being absorbed in the food chain and ultimately impacting fisheries products”.

The Centre for Environmental Rights is hopeful that the Namibian Moratorium could put the DMR under pressure as the Benguela Current Convention, of which South Africa is a signatory, requires the responsible management of shared resources. “As with the moratorium on fracking, government should not proceed with seabed mining, until at the very least, a strategic environmental assessment has been undertaken,” Roux said.

The DMR and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation have recently announced plans to develop a seabed mining roadmap. According to Roux, there is no mention of seabed mining in the draft Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, “The DMR has no capacity for monitoring seabed mining. The cumulative impact of an unregulated industry would be disastrous”.

Thus far only one country, Papa New Guinea, appears to have signed-off on commercial seafloor mining in its waters. It has leased an off-shore site called Solwara 1 to Toronto-listed firm Nautilus Minerals, in which Anglo American has a 5.99% stake. According to CNBC, Nautilus plans to begin copper production at the site in the first quarter of 2018.

Rights for mining in the high seas are dependent upon the International Seabed Authority, created by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides the legal framework for the world’s oceans and seas.

The DMR acknowledged Mineweb’s request to answer questions pertaining to seabed mining in South Africa over a month ago but has yet to respond.

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