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Sea bed mining new global gold rush

The last great redivision of the world. That’s how marine geologists are describing the stampede to mine the world’s sea beds for gold, silver, copper and cobalt, lead and zinc with unknown and unpredictable consequences.

It’s another environmental disaster in the making as countries and corporations alike join a modern gold rush, using new methods to exploit precious metals contained in rocky ore deposits called seafloor massive sulphides (SMS).
 
Located 1-2km under water, SMS deposits appear like giant rock formations about 200m long and wide, and tens of metres thick. The deposits contain high concentrations of copper and gold, as well as zinc, lead, silver and sulphur.

Deposits are found in underwater volcanic areas around the world and are created by hydrothermal plumes known as “black smokers”. Purities of 10% and higher have been discovered, turning the obscure deposits into potential rich pickings.  
 
Last year, the Canadian-headquartered company Nautilus, won a 20-year lease to mine a rich deposit in the Bismarck Sea, in the south-western Pacific. The mounds are a mile down. The company says the site holds about 10 tons of gold and 125,000 tons of copper.

Signed by the government of Papua New Guinea, the licence is a desperate move to earn some revenue. A recent report Out of our Depth, produced by MiningWatch Canada, poured scorn on the claims that mining would do no damage. Drawn up with the support of the Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights in PNG, the report says that the licence was granted on a “superficial understanding of social and economic impacts”.

The PNG’s environmental approvals process, it added, “has failed to protect the health
of the marine environment, the livelihoods and well-being of coastal communities, and fisheries of national and regional economic importance.”

Seabed mining will also produce massive mine dumps or slimes. When exposed to aerobic surface conditions, mineral breakdown releases elements from their mineralogical bindings which may not be easily absorbed by unaccustomed ecosystems.

But what the hell: there’s gold in them thar sea beds and the shareholders don’t care.

So there are no impact studies on the potential poisoning of human and marine communities by the metals released into ocean. So what?

Precious metals are in short supply on land because the corporations have mined just about what there is. So the sea beds are the next big thing, using technologies developed by that other ruthless industry in the shape of the oil corporations.

Government-supported groups in China, Japan and South Korea are hunting for sulphides in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. And private companies like Odyssey have made hundreds of deep assessments and claims in the volcanic zones around Pacific island nations. Russia joined the high-seas rush in 2011, and France and South Korea in May.   
 
As environmentalists have pointed out, unlike conventional mines or fracking, deep-undersea drilling and mining is near impossible for independent sources to look into. Journalists, documentary makers or even regulatory agencies will not be able to monitor what is going on. The companies and governments involved will not be in a rush to give us the whole picture, that’s for sure.

Georgy Cherkashov, a Russian marine geologist and president of the International Marine Minerals Society, said of the new minerals hunt: “It’s first come, first get”. The manoeuvring for the most promising sites, he added, represents “the last redivision of the world.” Great.

The depletion of natural resources that is driving the reckless exploration of sea beds is the reflection of an unsustainable, profit-driven production and consumption system. Not only has this led to a catastrophic economic disaster in the shape of a global capitalist recession, but has also weakened the ecosystem, leading to climate change.

The world needs to be redivided alright – removing the power and control of the 1% in favour of the majority as the first steps towards a sustainable production system driven by need that regards itself as part of nature and not its enemy.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
12 July 2012

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