Mining Colonies in the Ocean: digging the ocean floor for phosphate

Ocean Floor Mining image from http://e360.yale.edu/feature/drive_to_mine_the_deep_sea_raises_concerns_over_impacts/2818/

A persistent fear of diminishing phosphorus reserves has pushed mining companies to search far and wide for new sources. Companies identified phosphate deposits on the ocean floor and are fighting for mining rights around the world….

From April 2007 to August 2008, the price of phosphate, a necessary ingredient in fertilizer, increased nearly 950 percent, in part due to the idea that phosphate production had peaked and would begin diminishing. Before prices came back down, prospectors had already begun looking for deep sea phosphate reserves around the world.

Since then, the fledgling seabed phosphate industry has found minimal success. While several operations are proposed in the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Mexico rejected attempts at offshore phosphate mining in their territory.  This means southern African reserves – created in part by currents carrying phosphate-rich water from Antarctica – are the new center of debate.

Namibia owns identified seabed phosphate deposits, and the country has recently flip-flopped about whether to allow mining. A moratorium was in place since 2013, but in September 2016 the environmental minister made the controversial decision to grant the necessary licenses. Since then, public outcry forced him to set those aside…

Three companies, Green Flash Trading 251 (Pty) Ltd, Green Flash 257 (Pty) Ltd and Diamond Fields International Ltd., hold prospecting rights covering about 150,000 square kilometers, roughly 10 percent, of  South Africa’s marine exclusive economic zone…[G]reen Flash companies received drill samples, which showed current prices could not sustain seabed phosphate mining.

This leaves Diamond Fields as the only remaining player in South African waters. The company announced in a January 2014 press release that it received a 47,468 square kilometer prospecting right to search for phosphate.  According to information the company published summarising its environmental management plan, prospecting would use seismic testing to determine the benthic, or seafloor, geology. If mining commenced, it would take place on the seafloor between 180 and 500 meters below the surface.  “A vital and indisputable link exists between phosphate rock and world food supply,” the company stated, citing dwindling phosphate reserves…

Environmentalists argue that not only would phosphate mining destroy marine ecosystems, but it would also lead to continued overuse of fertilizers and associated pollution. They call for increased research into phosphate recapture technology instead of mining.“We could actually be solving the problem of too much phosphates in our water and recapturing it. Instead we’re going to destroy our ocean ecosystems,” John Duncan of WWF-SA said.

The act of offshore mining requires a vessel called a trailing suction hopper dredger, which takes up seafloor sediment and sends waste back into the water column.  “It amounts to a kind of bulldozer that operates on the seabed and excavates sediment down to a depth of two or three meters. Where it operates, it’s like opencast mining on land. It removes the entire substrate. That substrate become unavailable to fisheries for many years, if not forever,” Johann Augustyn, secretary of the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association, said….

Mining opponents also worry offshore mining would negatively impact food production and economic growth. Several thousand subsistence farmers live along South Africa’s coast, and the country’s large-scale fishing industry produces around 600,000 metric tonnes of catch per year.

“[Mining] may lead to large areas becoming deserts for the fish populations that were there. If they don’t die off, they won’t find food there, and they’ll probably migrate out of those areas,” Augustyn said.

South Africa is one of only three African nations – along with Namibia and Seychelles – implementing marine spatial planning. This growing movement toward organised marine economies balances competing uses such as oil exploration, marine protected areas and fisheries….[and mining.]

Excerpts from Mark Olalde, Phosphate Mining Firms Set Sights on Southern Africa’s Sea Floor, IPS, Nov. 17, 2016

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