Another Mystery at the Ocean’s Depths: Seabed Mining

by Carla Garcia Zendejas on January 27, 2013

This piece was originally published on the Ocean Foundation blog.

I am flying at an altitude of 39,000 ft. while thinking of the ocean’s depths, those dark places some of us first saw in rare and beautiful documentaries which introduced us to Jacques Cousteau and the amazing creatures and marine life we have learned to love and cherish throughout the world. Some of us have even been fortunate enough to enjoy the oceans depths firsthand, to gaze at the corals, while surrounded by curious schools of fish and slithering eels.

A black smoker chimney named ‘Boardwalk’ emitting 644°F hydrothermal fluids in the northeastern Pacific Ocean at a depth of 7,260 feet. Image courtesy of James F. Holden, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

A black smoker chimney named ‘Boardwalk’ emitting 644°F hydrothermal fluids in the northeastern Pacific Ocean at a depth of 7,260 feet. Image courtesy of James F. Holden, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Some of the habitats which continue to astound marine biologists are those created by the hot eruptions from volcanic springs where life exists at extremely high temperatures. Among the discoveries made in researching the volcanic springs or smokers was the fact that the sulfurous mountains which formed from the eruptions created massive deposits of minerals. Highly concentrated amounts of heavy metals such as gold, silver and copper accumulate in these mountains created as a result of the hot water reacting to the freezing ocean. These depths, still alien in many aspects are the new focus of mining companies throughout the world.

Modern mining practices rarely resemble the idea most of us have about the industry. Long gone are the days when you could mine for gold with a pick axe, most known mines around the world have been depleted of the ore which was readily available to be mined in this way. Nowadays, most heavy metal deposits which still exist in the ground are minuscule in comparison. Thus the method to extract the gold, or silver is a chemical process which occurs after moving tons of dirt and rocks which must be ground and then submitted to a chemical wash whose main ingredient is cyanide plus millions of gallons of fresh water to obtain a single ounce of gold, this is known as cyanide leaching. The byproduct of this process is a toxic sludge containing arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead among other toxic substances, known as tailings. These mine tailings are usually deposited in mounds in proximity to the mines posing a hazard to soil and groundwater beneath the surface.

So how does this mining translate to the depths of the ocean, the sea bed, how would the removal of tons of rock and the elimination of mountains of minerals existing on the ocean floor affect the marine life, or the surrounding habitats or the ocean’s crust? What would cyanide leaching look like in the ocean? What would happen with the tailings from the mines? The truth is that the school is still out on these and many other questions, albeit officially. Because, if we merely observe what mining practices have brought to communities from Cajamarca (Peru), Peñoles (Mexico) to Nevada (USA) the record is clear. The history of water depletion, toxic heavy metal pollution and the health consequences that go along with it are common place in most mining towns. The only palpable results are moonscapes made up of massive craters which can be up to a mile deep and more than two miles wide. The dubious benefits proposed by mining projects are always undercut by the hidden economic impacts and costs for the environment. Communities throughout the world have been voicing their opposition to previous and future mining projects for years; litigation has challenged laws, permits and decrees both nationally and internationally with varying degrees of success.

View of Gold Fields’ Cerro Corona gold mine in Hualgayoc, Cajamarca, Peru. September 21, 2011.  Photo by Carla García Zendejas

View of Gold Fields’ Cerro Corona gold mine in Hualgayoc, Cajamarca, Peru. September 21, 2011. Photo by Carla García Zendejas

Some such opposition has already begun in regard to one of the first sea bed mining projects in Papua New Guinea, Nautilus Minerals Inc. a Canadian company was granted a 20 year permit to extract ore which is said to contain high concentrations of gold and copper 30 miles off the coast beneath the Bismarck Sea. In this case we are dealing with a domestic permit with a nation to answer for the possible implications of this mine project. But what will occur with the mining claims held in international waters? Who will be held accountable and responsible for possible negative impacts and outcomes?

Enter the International Seabed Authority, created as a part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), this international agency is charged with implementing the convention and regulating mineral activity on the seabed, ocean floor and subsoil in international waters. The Legal and Technical Commission (made up of 25 members elected by the ISA council) reviews applications for exploration and mining projects, while also assessing and supervising operations and environmental impacts, final approval is granted by the 36 member ISA council. Some countries currently holding contracts for exclusive rights for exploration are China, Russia, South Korea, France, Japan and India; areas explored are up to 150,000 square kilometers in size.

Is ISA equipped to deal with the growing demand in seabed mining, will it be capable of regulating and supervising the increasing number of projects? What is the level of accountability and transparency of this international agency that is charged with protecting most of the earth’s oceans? We could use the BP oil disaster as an indicator of the challenges faced by a large well funded regulatory agency to oversea national waters in the U.S. What chance does a small agency such as ISA have to deal with these and future challenges?

Processing area of Zimplats platinum mine outside Harare, Zimbabwe. March 26, 2012. Photo by Carla García Zendejas

Processing area of Zimplats platinum mine outside Harare, Zimbabwe. March 26, 2012. Photo by Carla García Zendejas

Yet another issue is the fact that the U.S. has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea(164 nations have ratified the convention), while some think that the U.S. does not need to be a party to the treaty to initiate seabed mining operations others disagree wholeheartedly. If we are to question or challenge proper implementation of oversight and environmental standards to avoid damaging the oceans depths, we will have to be a part of the discussion. When we are not willing to abide by the same level of scrutiny internationally we lose credibility and good will. So while we are aware that deep sea drilling is a hazardous business, we must concern ourselves with deep sea mining because we have yet to grasp the magnitude of its impacts.

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