Papua New Guinea, a small and remote country tucked in a corner of the southwestern Pacific Ocean, has dealt with a long and tumultuous history of mining, including one mine that led to a civil war. So the recent news of yet another mining company securing permits to extract gold, despite community opposition, is a familiar one. But there’s a twist to this story: This mine would be located under the sea.
Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals secured a permit from the PNG government to extract gold and copper from Solwara 1, a deep-sea basin of hydrothermal vents located in the Bismarck Sea. These vents release mineral-rich fluid from beneath the seafloor.
New technologies have made the world’s oceans the new frontier for mining. Both companies and governments have started exploration – and even tout deep-sea mining as a safer alternative to the problems caused by mineral extraction on land. But they do so in the absence of any scientific consensus on the long-term impacts of deep-sea mining, and in an environment with very little oversight of mining and other industrial activity.
What accounts for this enthusiasm? Perhaps these mines' locations, under the sea and out of sight, make this emerging industry abstract, making it easy to forget its dangers.
But in fact these projects pose real dangers. Mining the Solwara 1 site, which Nautilus expects to begin in 2018, would involve digging up sediment from the seabed and destroying the hydrothermal vent chimneys containing gold and copper ore deposits. This liquid ore slurry would then be transferred to a ship via pipe, where it would be dewatered before ultimately going to a land-based processing facility.
The effects of this project are unknown, as the Solwara 1 project is the first of its kind. However, the project will certainly kill off all living organisms living in the chimneys and seabed that would be destroyed and dug up.
In addition to the destruction of these fragile sources of marine biodiversity, Solwara 1 will create sediment plumes, or clouds of particles that would proliferate from the removal and dumping of sediments and waste. These plumes disrupt the natural movement of ocean water, and in the process can potentially:
- Smother entire ecological communities on the seabed
- Clog hydrothermal vents
- Introduce nutrient-rich deep water into surface waters, which can cause increased algae production that can harm shallow-water organisms
- Expose organisms to heavy metals: Metals once out of reach to shallow-water organisms can be ingested and accumulate up the food chain — potentially harming the health of humans consuming fish as well. Consumption of these metals can also be fatal to these organisms, or lead to mutation or reproductive failure and other impacts.
It’s for these reasons that several community groups in Papua New Guinea have come together to oppose the Solwara 1. Communities that are still grappling with waterways devastated by mining projects are skeptical of this experimental project. “The PNG Government has put the cart before the horse by issuing Nautilus Minerals [the] Solwara 1 mining license without adequate and independent scientific studies, or comprehensive national policy, laws and regulations for Deep Sea Mining (DSM),” said Thomas Imal, a lawyer with local group Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR).
But despite community opposition, Nautilus is promoting this project, commissioning an analysis that concludes that Solwara 1 is less damaging to the environment than a land-based mining project. The mining industry will increasingly use this argument to promote deep-sea mining, but it's a false comparison, as this report details.
We know dangerously little about the world’s oceans. A sensible way forward would be to hit the pause button on deep-sea mining until greater scientific consensus can be reached on the full short and long-term impacts of this new industry.