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Chatham Rock distances itself from ironsands project

Chatham Rock distances itself from ironsands project in EPA hearing

By Jonathan Underhill

Sept. 25 (BusinessDesk) - Chatham Rock Phosphate, the company proposing to mine phosphate nodules from the seabed on the Chatham Rise, has distanced itself from TransTasman Resources' ironsands dredging project and urged the Environmental Protection Authority to consider the economic benefits of locally sourced fertiliser.

The hearings for Chatham Rock's marine consent application, set down for two months, opened in Wellington today, with the company's counsel, James Winchester, telling the EPA's decision-making committee that rock phosphate on the Chatham Rise is "a strategic resource of national significance."

Winchester said in opening submissions that New Zealand is an economy dependent on agricultural production but with relatively infertile soils, requiring imports of phosphate from North Africa. Phosphate, he said, was "as essential to life as water, oxygen and carbon."

Chatham Rock's proposal is the second test of the EPA's appetite for seabed mining within New Zealand's vast offshore Exclusive Economic Zone after the authority rejected TransTasman's application to mine ironsands off the seabed some 22 to 36 kilometres off the coast of Patea. That company is appealing its ruling to the High Court which this week ordered it to revise its appeal to be shorter and more focussed.

Winchester told the committee today that unlike TransTasman's project, Chatham Rock's mining would be far removed from the coast in open water. Little fishing took place in its permit area, there was no spawning and the plume generated from sucking up a 500 centimetre layer of the seabed would be confined to the immediate area.

Chatham Rock is proposing to mine phosphate nodules at depths of up to 450 metres, initially within its 820 square kilometre mining permit area for five years. After that it would widen its activity to a 5,207 sq km area for up to a further 30 years. Annual extraction is targeted at 1.5 million tonnes of the nodules. Opponents lining up to oppose the project include Ngai Tahu, Te Ohu Kai Moana Trustee and the Deepwater Group, which represents the fishing industry.

Winchester said mining phosphate was unlikely to have a significant impact on commercial fishing and told the committee that existing seabed trawling on the Chatham Rise had "a much worse" impact on the environment and was also concentrated where fish stocks were greatest and where fish spawn.

He criticised the Deepwater Group's media campaign, which he said warned of "catastrophic impact" while providing no evidence. He also criticised the release of a report from EPA staff in August that said there was too much uncertainty over the environmental impact of Chatham Rock's plans on an important fishery. That report is among material that must be considered by the committee.

"Uncertainty has become an over-used buzz word following the TransTasman Resources and hearing and decision," he said. "There is a risk that overuse of the word could lead to inappropriate or less vigorous decision making in some circumstances."

Chatham Rock had yet to decide whether it would object to reliance on the staff report and a proposed second report that would also have firm conclusions and recommendations, Winchester said. He called the staff report "inherently unreliable" and unlikely to have been prepared by people with as much expertise as those the company would be calling on.

He did concede that the phosphate mining would have a "significant impact" on benthic communities - those organism that live on or near the sea floor.

"Marine biota within the mined substrate will be destroyed and the substrate will change from a mixture of sand, nodules, and hard substrate to a relatively uniform soft sediment substrate which will attract different benthic communities through recolonisation," he told the committee.

The Deepwater Group is scheduled to appear before the hearing tomorrow, and Sealord Fishing general manager Doug Paulin, of Ngati Porou, has previously disagreed with the proposal saying the area should not be touched. Paulin said it was in an area where Sealord had ceased operations for a number of years and in a protected area that it did not trawl through.

He likened it to a national park at sea and Sealord saw the strip-mining of it as something the company did not want to support. The risks to the environment were too great, he said.

The Crown, which is neutral on the proposal, is making its submissions today. The project would fit with the government's economic growth agenda, through the Crown had some concerns about the impact on fisheries.

The hearing is continuing.

(BusinessDesk)

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