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Te Ipukarea Society: Some concerning aspects around deep sea mining

Saturday 27 May 2023 | Written by Te Ipukarea Society | Published in Environment, National

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Te Ipukarea Society: Some concerning aspects around deep sea mining
Deep sea manganese nodules found in the Cook Islands Photo: EEZ. SEABED MINERALS AUTHORITY/20092117

Proponents of mining our deep ocean seafloor justify the need for this hugely destructive process, largely by claims that the minerals from the deep are needed for batteries for electric vehicles.

The theory being that we will stop burning fossil fuels which contribute to climate change. 

However, those claims are flawed, because there is new battery technology available, with more being developed all the time, which does not rely on these deep sea metals.

There are also other sources of these metals, if we did need them for the green transition, one of which is “mining” them from the world’s landfills. 

There is so much metal that could be recycled from current landfills to fill the future needs, rather than risking the health of our ocean by mining the ocean floor.

This has the added advantage of getting toxic materials out of our landfills before they leach into our soils and waterways, and further pollute our environment.

Another major use of these metals, which seems to be left out during the presentations about why we should mine them, is in the industry of war. 

Mining companies tend to conceal or downplay the role their minerals play in the arms trade, preferring to emphasise their contribution to more socially useful products.

But without metals and rare earth elements that could come from the deep seabed, there would be no weapons for war.

These light weight metals and rare earth elements are used in the manufacture of missiles, military aircraft, ammunitions, drones and many others.

Take cobalt, a key component of our polymetallic nodules in the Cook Islands. 

Only 44% of mined cobalt is used in batteries, electric motors and propulsion systems. 

Meanwhile 17% is used in superalloys for industrial machinery such as turbines, compressors and fans, including in fighter aircraft and helicopters, destroyers, frigates and submarines, and missiles

Another aspect of mining the deep, not yet highlighted by the would be miners, is the potential for damage to human and ocean health from exposure to radioactive materials released by the mining and processing activities.

A recent article in the peer reviewed journal Nature reported that in the outer layer of the polymetallic nodules, certain substances, which emit alpha radiation, can exceed legal limits by up to a thousand times.

It also reported that there are at least three ways of radiation exposure from nodules, including the inhalation or ingestion of tiny nodule particles, the inhalation of radon gas in enclosed spaces and potential concentration of some radioisotopes during nodule processing.

The mining and discharge plumes can also carry radioactive particles which could potentially enter the food chain.

Mining companies apply various tactics to counter criticism and maintain legitimacy of their mining operations.

These include examples such as sponsoring community, cultural and sporting groups and schools, or using environmental initiatives such as working with (and paying) research institutions to rebrand and ‘greenwash’ ecological harm caused by the mining. We have already seen examples of this here in the Cook Islands.

At the recent G7 summit in Japan, Pacific Civil Society representatives shared concerns about the serious environmental, social and economic considerations for people in the Global South (of which the Cook Islands could be considered a part) concerning the fast tracking of energy transition minerals and the opening up of new sacrifice zones like the Pacific Ocean to deep sea mining.

They said the Pacific has already been used as the experimental grounds to develop nuclear weapons.

The so-called developed nations should no longer be allowed to pollute the Pacific for their own purposes with deep sea mining (DSM).

The impacts of DSM are just as impactful if not more than nuclear testing, and this analogy gives a clearer understanding of the scale of devastation that we are talking about with regards to DSM.

So the next time you see a press release or presentation spouting on about all the potential economic and other benefits we will get from deep sea mining, please also give some critical thought to the negatives that will come with it before deciding whether to give your support.