Deep Sea Mining Faces First Legal Challenge

The mining industry has set its sights on a new frontier – the deep sea. Seabed or deep-sea mining involves extracting minerals from hydrothermal vents, manganese nodules and cobalt crusts on the ocean’s floor. In just the past five years, the number of seabed mining permits granted by the International Seabed Authority has tripled, to a total of 26– and counting. But while permits are granted at a rapid clip, we still have too little understanding of deep-sea mining’s ultimate impacts.

Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. government for granting seabed mining exploration permits in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, an area of the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii that is abundant in metals such as nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese. “Deep-sea mining should be stopped, and this lawsuit aims to compel the government to look at the environmental risks before it leaps into this new frontier,” said CBD attorney Emily Jeffers.

CBD argues that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) granted UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, five-year extensions for two exploration licenses it holds for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone without performing the necessary environmental impact analysis – which is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. While the company has held these permits since 1994, the lawsuit challenges NOAA’s renewal of the permits in 2012.

 The lawsuit (PDF) raises concerns about the mining operation’s potential to harm marine life such as whales, dolphins and sea turtles as well as entire deep-sea ecosystems. For example, submarine mining vehicles can “kick up” sediment plumes that may smother organisms and cloud the water, blocking necessary sunlight. The mine waste that would be directly released into the ocean could also cloud water and block photosynthesis. Furthermore, heavy metals released from this mine waste may lead to bioaccumulation of toxins up the food chain.

Indeed, even though this mining would take place deep in the sea and out of our view, it could still ultimately harm us.

Though this industry is growing rapidly, it is still in its early stages. Unlike other industrial activities, there is still time to evaluate the full consequences of deep-sea mining before seabeds around the world are torn up for minerals. The CBD’s lawsuit should serve as a warning signal for industry and the government to consider the science before giving the green light to deep-sea mining projects.