All eyes on next EPA mining decision

The focus on proposed seabed mining now shifts from Taranaki to the Chatham Rise, as the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) considers its second ocean mining application.

This week, the EPA's maiden decision declined a proposal by Trans-Tasman Resources to mine iron-sand off Taranaki's coast - throwing the focus on to a separate proposal by Chatham Rock Phosphate to take phosphate from the sea floor of the Chatham Rise.

The Taranaki proposal galvanised thousands of people to protest the project for a variety of environmental concerns, including thousands of submissions to the EPA, while the EPA's decision angered business and mining lobby groups.

Trans-Tasman has a 15-working-day appeal period, but can only appeal a point of law.

The EPA decision said ''the major reason was uncertainty around the scope and significance of the potential adverse environmental effects, and those on existing interests, such as the fishing interests and iwi''.

In an entirely separate seabed mining proposal, the EPA has just called for public submissions on Chatham Rock Phosphate's proposal to vacuum dredge sediment off the Chatham Rise sea floor, to extract phosphate nodules. Chatham has spent about $25 million in researching the project, including its environmental reports for the EPA.

Forest and Bird's advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell said the EPA's permit denial for Trans-Tasman was a ''positive precedent'', meaning the Chatham Rise proposal to mine was ''unlikely to ever be approved''.

He said dredging in Taranaki was at depths of only between 20m and 45m, while the Chatham Rise was more than 400m deep.

''That would make it the deepest seabed mining operation in the world, destroying habitats and species science knows even less about,'' Mr Hackwell said.

Chatham Rock chief executive Chris Castle said the EPA's decision against Trans-Tasman could not be compared to Chatham's application as it involved mining a different mineral, a different marine environment and different extraction methods.

''We remain very confident we have submitted a robust and comprehensive application which will meet the legal tests under the relevant New Zealand legislation,'' Mr Castle said.

Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly said the EPA's Taranaki decision was a ''blow for prospects for new industries and growth in the exclusive economic zone'', noting Trans-Tasman had spent $60 million in research during the past seven years.

''No doubt the EPA has carried out its mandate in good faith, but business will be wondering about the effect of the decision on other new and emerging industries,'' Mr O'Reilly said.

Resource lobby group Straterra's chief executive Chris Baker said the EPA decision was a ''shock and surprise'' and ''sends an unfortunate signal to potential investors''.

''Modern society needs these resources, as does the New Zealand economy, and it is difficult to imagine that the environmental impact of the proposed mining could not be managed in an acceptable manner.

''I'm sure the company [Trans-Tasman] could have worked with conditions that required review over time,'' Mr Baker said.

Trans-Tasman's chief executive Tim Crossley told the Taranaki Daily News the company was ''extremely disappointed'' with the decision, having put a significant amount of time and effort into developing the project, including consulting iwi and local communities and providing detailed scientific research to assess environmental impacts of the project.

''We will be carefully analysing the decision over the next few days and will take our time to consider what this means for the South Taranaki Bight project and for the company.''

The EPA said it was ''not satisfied that the life-supporting capacity of the environment would be safeguarded or that the adverse effects of the proposal could be avoided, remedied or mitigated, given the uncertainty and inadequacy of the information presented''.

As with Trans-Tasman, Chatham Rock already has the requisite mining permit for its Chatham Rise proposal, but it, too, must gain an EPA marine consent. Public submissions for the marine consent are open until July 10, with public hearings to be scheduled later.

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