By Cindy Baxter
In the wake of the EPA’s decision to grant a marine licence to a company to dig up 50 million tonnes of the South Taranaki Bight seabed every year for 35 years, there have already been a number of factually inaccurate statements made by both the company and the EPA itself.
A split vote
First, it’s important to understand that of the four commissioners appointed by the EPA, two were firmly against giving Trans Tasman Resources (TTR) the go-ahead. The deputy chair of the EPA Board was in favour. The chair of the EPA’s Decision Making Committee (DMC) had an extra vote that pushed the decision over the line. This is concerning. If there were any doubts, the legislation directs the decision makers to err on the side of caution.
It seemed the EPA wasn’t happy about its DMC refusing consent twice. For the first two applications, it had five committee members, which would have been a straightforward process with one vote for each. But by reducing that to four, and giving the chair an extra vote, the EPA fundamentally shifted the power to the chair.
The environmental impact
TTR’s Ceo Alan Eggers made two, shall we say ‘very questionable’ claims on TV One news on Thursday.
“We … looked at the short comings of the first application and addressed those shortcomings and reapplied… We are sure that we are not going to have any adverse effects on the ecology of the area.”
We address the first statement below and for the second statement you just need to read the decision to ascertain the level of truth in that comment.
Was there new scientific information?
Dr Alan Freeth, head of the EPA, told Radio Live in an extended interview that this time round, TTR had done a lot more work around the environmental effects of the proposed operations. He added this was also good for submitters who could comment on this information.
But the company did its best to hide much of its new information from the public. It managed to get the EPA to agree to redact it from public view and we, the submitters – KASM, then joined by Talley’s Fisheries and Ngati Ruanui – had to spend a considerable amount of money to take them to the Environment Court in order to get the modelling released. The Environment Court said we won by a ‘wide margin.’
When the information was finally made public at the direction of the Environment Court, it was found to be lacking, and the company was sent away to carry out more work. Yet even after that, the two dissenting Commissioners had serious concerns about whether it shed any light on the potential environmental effects.
The company failed:
- to carry out any marine mammal surveys, even though they were told in the failed application decision that they should have, and
- did no benthic organism (bottom dwelling) studies.
- It did not measure ambient (existing) noise, though noise is a huge issue for marine mammals.
- And TTR did no studies of effects on little penguins or fairy prions for the application.
They made no effort to undertake any baseline monitoring of the seabed, despite the lack of it being one of the grounds the EPA refused their first application.
As the two dissenting Commissioners themselves said in the decision:
“The lack of adequate baseline information results in an inability to both adequately describe the potentially affected environment and to assess the sensitivity of the receiving environment.”
As the hearing went on, it became clear that it was the submitters who provided much of the new science, and their own expert witnesses.
Take, for example, the South Taranaki Reef Life Project, a collaborative project between local high school students, marine scientists and the local underwater club studying and documenting a reef on the Patea Shoals. A reef, like many, that TTR had not identified. They presented data and graphic images that showed great diversity and an abundance of marine life near the mine site.
Ironically, this project received this year’s Green Ribbon Award from Environment Minister Nick Smith.
Another significant bit of scientific evidence introduced was KASM’s blue whale expert Dr Leigh Torres of Oregon State University. Dr Torres had just completed her third annual survey of blue whales in the Bight, telling the hearing that they had sighted 68 individual blue whales including five mother and calf pairs during their nine-day survey. They believe the South Taranaki Bight is one of only five foraging grounds outside the Antarctic for these huge, endangered, whales, and could be a breeding ground.
The company, on the other hand, relied on one aerial survey conducted before its first application in 2013, and historic whale sighting data from oil rigs.
The company’s projected economic benefits for New Zealand are also wildly optimistic. The company had done new projections, even greater than previous projections that the EPA had rejected the first time round, but did not undertake a cost-benefit analysis. Who could possibly agree to such an enormous project without doing such an analysis? Our Treasury wouldn’t dream of it.
Where any profits would go is also a major question here, and requires looking at just who owns TTR.
It’s worth noting that just three weeks before TTR submitted its application to the EPA, a strange thing happened. On 8 August last year, the company was 1.3 percent owned by New Zealand shareholders, with the bulk being owned by international investors.
But on 9 August 2016, TTR transferred a 48% slice of the cake from TTR INVESTMENT HOLDING NETHERLANDS COOPERATIE UA to MINVEST SECURITIES (NEW ZEALAND) LIMITED, which is, ultimately, 99%-owned by an Auckland law firm, Claymore Partners.
This trick is known as “securities lending” but it allowed the company CEO, Alan Eggers, to claim his company was at least 50 percent New Zealand owned, something it informed the public and the EPA, every chance it got. The other company director is now a Claymore Law director, John Seton – who has a holiday house on a black sand beach – Piha.
The only other director is a woman called Ronghua Zhang, of Rock Check Steel Group, whose (now deceased) husband was caught up in a massive bribery scandal in 2010.
The Companies Office website lists four directors, with Andrew James Stewart being the fourth, but he’s not listed on the company site.
Setting a precedent
KASM has said that we will appeal this decision, and our lawyers are already working on what that might look like.
Apart from the fact that we consider this decision very flawed, and that such a huge operation with potentially devastating consequences only got the go-ahead because the chair of the committee had two votes, we have to look at the precedent it sets.
While the industry claims there would be no precedent set, that is nonsense. After the first application was refused in 2014, many of the companies with permits up the coast of the North Island dropped them.
We know the company has more plans to mine the seabed in other areas. The current decision is for seabed mining in a 66sqkm area in the South Taranaki Bight. If this does go ahead, it creates a precedent for other applications. Here’s a list (and see our map):
- Trans Tasman Resources: an 815sqkm area surrounding the current 66sqkm area.
- Trans Tasman Resources, a 615sqkm area even closer to the coast off Patea in the South Taranaki Bight
- Trans Tasman Resources: a 238 sqkm area off the coast of Kawhia, where we know there is a very large iron ore deposit.
- Trans Tasman Resources: prospecting permit for a 4435sqkm area off the South Island’s West Coast.
- Ironsands Offshore Mining Ltd has a prospecting permit off the coast of New Plymouth (223sqkm)
- Pacific Offshore Mining Ltd has prospecting rights for a big chunk of the seabed off Waihi Beach.
- Chatham Rock Phosphate has indicated it will re-apply for a marine licence to mine the deep seabed off the Chatham Rise, east of Christchurch.
Finally, given that this is a first of its kind proposal anywhere in the world, we still feel that New Zealand is acting way too fast in this dangerous industry. The UN’s International Seabed Authority is currently working to set international rules around seabed mining – in a multi-year process.
In Namibia and Australia’s Northern Territory the Governments have imposed a moratorium on seabed mining, because there simply isn’t enough science. But in New Zealand? “She’ll be right mate” seems to be both the EPA and the Government’s stance.
KASM still believes that until there is certainty around its safety, a moratorium on seabed mining is the only responsible way forward.
The world’s oceans are in serious decline already and to introduce a brand new activity that guarantees further degradation is not ok in the twenty first century. A moratorium would allow time for more science and technology to emerge, it would allow for an inclusive national discussion and a Marine Spatial Planning exercise to be undertaken.