The appointment of a new chief executive for mining company Trans-Tasman Resources has renewed interest in ironsand mining along the Wanganui and South Taranaki coastlines, and promises economic growth and job prospects within five years.
New chief executive officer Tim Crossley has joined Trans-Tasman Resources from Gloucester Coal, and has experience after a stint as president and chief operating officer of BHP Billiton’s West Australian iron ore business.
Bill Bisset, executive chairman of Trans-Tasman, said the appointment would help turn the project from conceptual to operational. “Our mining will focus on offshore sand dunes that hold iron ore,” Mr Bisset said. The sand will be extracted by floating processing plants, with up to 150 people working on those facilities. “We have done a lot of testing, looked at the sustainable impacts and are now going through the appropriate legislation and licensing,” Mr Bisset said.
Trans-Tasman plans to dredge sand off the ocean floor, extracting the iron ore on its offshore facilities and dumping the sand tailings back into the sea. The company was granted a continental shelf licence in December 2010 which gives it exploration rights to the coast.
The prospecting area stretches 5km south of Opunake down to the Whangaehu River and beyond 12 nautical miles (22km) offshore, giving Trans-Tasman rights covering an area of 3314sq km.
There are a number of possible environmental and ecological effects when mining ironsand, including wave disruption, shoreline erosion and adverse effects on fish life, and Allen Pidwell, environmental officer at Surfing Taranaki, said his organisation had met Trans-Tasman Resources and expressed concerns about extraction.
“Extracting millions of tonnes of ironsand from the sea bed will inevitably lead to coastal erosion. As every child knows if you dig a hole in the sand it will be filled up with sand from further up the beach,” Mr Pidwell said.
“There will also be effects on the swells that provide surfers with the waves they enjoy.”
Mining ironsand on the scale proposed will have effects that may take decades to be felt along the coast, by which time the mining industry may be long gone. “Dredging the seabed, separating the iron ore and then returning the unwanted material to the sea floor will cause a huge plume of sand to be suspended in the water column causing pollution,” Mr Pidwell said.
Andy Sommerville, Trans-Tasman environment and approvals manager, said the company had contracted the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa), to look at the likely effects of offshore ironsand mining. Mr Sommerville said the research was ongoing and they were likely to receive findings closer to their application for mining consent.
Ironsand mining is no stranger to the Wanganui and Taranaki coastlines. Major onshore operations began at Waipipi in 1971 and Taharoa in 1972. At the time there was a high demand from Japan for titanomagnetite, found in ironsand. Nearly 16 million tonnes of concentrate titanomagnetite had been exported by the time production closed in March 1988.
Mr Bisset said the market had changed since the Waipipi days and that China had now become the principal consumer, using the iron ore to expand its steel-making capacity.
Trans-Tasman insists the best areas in New Zealand for ironsand extraction remain the Taranaki and Wanganui coastlines.