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The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has been criticised by marine consent applicant Chatham Rock Phosphate, for releasing a staff report on its application.
Chatham wants to mine up to 1.5 million tonnes of phosphate nodules, by vacuum dredging the seafloor on the Chatham Rise at depths of 400m, and during the past four years has spent more than $26 million on research, development and permit applications.
While public submissions have just closed on Chatham's application, and public hearings are yet to begin, the EPA's 170-page report gives a mixed message that staff cannot grant a marine consent, but its view could be changed by more information, which is about to be provided by Chatham.
Chatham managing director Chris Castle said the report's release was ''premature'' and should not have not have been issued until extra information requested of Chatham by the EPA was provided.
''In order to be a fair and balanced report, it should have taken account of information we either recently provided or is still yet to be prepared,'' Mr Castle said in a statement yesterday.
The report's summary said: ''Chatham Rock Phosphate's proposed mining activities would have significant adverse effects on a biologically diverse benthic community.
''Significant gaps in the information remain, and there is uncertainty about the ability to avoid, remedy or mitigate the adverse effects of these proposed mining activities.
''The EPA staff are not currently able to recommend granting this marine consent on the face of CRP's application as it stands, but recognise that there is more information to be provided, which may change our view.''
The report went on to say if the EPA did grant the marine consent, the staff had therefore included in the report a ''preliminary set of draft conditions ... as a starting point''.
Mr Castle said Chatham would not expect a report, at this stage in the process, to recommend approval.
''Otherwise, what is the point of all of the additional information, the caucusing of expert witnesses, and the weeks of hearings ... still ahead?''
He said that while there were ''uncertainties'' to seafloor mining, that was what the marine consent process was ''designed to identify and clarify''.
''We remain confident we have done the work to show we can undertake our mining operations in a sustainable way, and we believe the marine consent process will demonstrate this,'' Mr Castle said.
Following the criticism, EPA general manager of applications and assessment Sarah Gardner said the staff report was not a decision on the application.
The decision-making committee, appointed by the EPA board to hear and decide the application may make a different decision to that recommended by EPA staff.
• The EPA, which regulates the vast offshore Exclusive Economic Zone, has already declined consent to an unrelated proposal by Trans Tasman Resources to dredge ironsand from the seabed off Taranaki; now subject to an appeal.