In May of this year, offshore iron sand mining firm Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) became the first company to be granted a licence to explore deposits in the South Taranki Bight, off the coast of the North Island.Iron sand mining involves hooveringup millions of tonnes of sand from the seafloor to extract a comparatively small amount of iron ore concentrate, causing significant disruption to the ecosystem.
But, despite the risk-laden nature of the process, New Zealand's Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment rubber-stamped the proposal upon receipt of a submission from TTR and independent assessments that found only minor risks from the development. In contrast, the benefits were significant, with more than 200 jobs and $147m in extra exports for the country's coffers. The backing of the business department was only part of the battle though, and a month later TTR's plans came to a halt when its application was rejected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Having put the proposal out to public consultation, the EPA received 4,702 submissions with 99.5% of them either fully or partly opposed to the project being given the green light.
The main opposition to the project was on environmental grounds, with concerns stretching from damaging the underwater ecosystem to threatening the quality of the country's world renowned surfing spots. From commercial fishermen to the Maori tribes, TTR was faced with a strong and united opposing force.
Western Australia's ecologia Environment has worked amongst some of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet.
In its submission to the EPA, the Patea District Boating Club warned that the project carried significant risks to sea life in and around the target zone. "Migratory mammal species such as Blue Whales and Southern Right Whales have a high potential to be impacted along with Orca Whales plus the at-risk Maui and Hectors dolphins. There are only approximately 900 Southern Right Whales with fewer than a dozen reproductive females remaining in New Zealand. Any adverse impacts to the migratory and resident mammal species could be devastating and must be avoided."
Fishing industry and local communities unite against mining proposal
The project was met with particularly strong opposition from the commercial fishing industry operating in the area, which feared that the project carried huge economic risk. Kirsty Woods, trustee for TeOhuKaimoana, which represents Maori fishing interests, objected to the proposal on the grounds that the potential risks weren't clear enough: "It can't be certain at this stage whether the actual effects will match or even exceed what has been predicted. This raises questions about the ability of the company to adjust their operations to address effects that turn out to be greater than assumed through the modelling work."
Fishing Inshore New Zealand(FINZ), which acts on behalf of commercial fisherman in the country, criticised TTR for not paying due regard to the potential impact of mining operations on the environment and the fishing industry. It said: "FINZ does not consider that the applicant has had sufficient regard to the environmental consequences that could result as a consequence of their activity on our fishing activity. We consider that there is the potential for a multimillion dollar negative impact from this activity which adversely affect the social wellbeing of our members."
North Island fights off industrial guinea pig treatment
FINZ added: "Where vessels catch fish and how they transit through the area will more than likely have to change."Maori iwi ,NgaRauruKiitahi, also objected to the lack of clarity provided in the assessments and plans provided by TTR: "Given that this type of activity has never been conducted in New Zealand waters before and the impacts and effects are fundamentally unknown, we intensely object to being guinea pigs in an experiment that puts our food sources and food chain at risk."
In its original submission to the government, TTR covered a wide range of the issues associated with the development, including those that were later used to oppose it. It claimed that there would be "very small" changes to wave height and direction and that the impact on surfing waves, which was raised as an issue by the Patea District Boating Club, was "likely to be insignificant". On commercial fishing, it expected there to be "no negative impact" and pledged to work with the industry to address any concerns. It accepted that the sand extraction posed a high environmental risk to organisms and living on the seabed, and a moderate risk to offshore biogenic habitats.
Having reviewed the original proposal and the submissions received through the consultation, the EPA ruled against TTR on the grounds that it had not fully assessed the potential environmental impact. Outlining its decision, it said: "Overall, we think this application was premature. More time to have better understood the proposed operation and the receiving environment and engage more constructively with the existing interests and other parties may have overcome many of the concerns we have set out in this decision. It is conceivable that at least some of these matters could have been addressed contemporaneously with the investigative work the applicant undertook prior to lodging the application for consents."
TTR not ready to give up the fight
In his initial response to the ruling by the EPA, Tim Crossley, chief executive of TTR, said: "We have put a significant amount of time and effort into developing this project including consulting with iwi and local communities and undertaking detailed scientific research to assess environmental impacts of the project. Our objective has been to develop an iron sands extraction project which achieves substantial economic development while protecting the environment."
Since the ruling, TTR has confirmed that it has lodged an appeal and will challenge the ruling on a point of law. The company has already invested more than $60mn to investigate the iron sand resources around the North Island and is not ready to let go of the prospect of extracting up to five million tonnes of iron ore concentrate. But its failure to satisfactorily address the environmental issues associated with the project, which the EPA admitted could have been overcome, may scupper it.
Australian miners are increasingly looking abroad to sell their expertise as the domestic market slows down.
TTR may have been the first to try to gain access to New Zealand's under sea treasures, but it is unlikely to be the last. Chatham Rock Phosphate is already embroiled in a battle with the EPA over its application to extract offshore rock phosphate deposits. Having had its initial application rejected, the company has responded with testimony from 31 expert witnesses and answered 62 queries from the EPA. It has also called for the initial report to be thrown out after it discovered that a member of the decision-making body had an undisclosed conflict of interest relating to work with environmental campaign group Greenpeace.
As a country, New Zealand is admired for prizing environmental sustainability. But as the commercial will to capitalise on its minerals increases, it will face increasing pressure on whether environmental value outweighs economic.