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The fly in the deep sea mining ointment

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Glen Smith, JP, MP, is a One Bermuda Alliance parliamentarian

My colleague Mark Pettingill said in the House of Assembly last week that the Opposition was a party full of ideas, but not solutions.

He was talking about their championing of deep sea mining, which they claim is “an opportunity to add millions of dollars to our economy and assist in paying down the national debt all while protecting existing jobs and creating new opportunities for Bermudians,” as Shadow Minister of the Environment Glenn Blakeney put it.

But the fly in the ointment is that economic extraction of minerals from the deep ocean bottom is an idea still very much at the theoretical stage.

Starting the process in Bermuda now would be about as sound a venture as trying to start a trans-Atlantic airline right on the heels of the Wright Brothers’ first flight!

There has been successful shallow water mining of diamonds off the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, but the deposits there have been washed out to sea by river flow, and are comparatively easily retrieved.

It is known that mineral deposits exist on the ocean floor, especially in areas where new ocean crust is forming, often at depths of up to 12,000 feet. The process by which they are formed involves seawater being drawn down through fractures in the crust of the ocean floor towards hot molten rock, which transforms it to a hot acidic fluid which leaches metals from the surrounding rocks as it rises again to the seafloor, where those metals are deposited.

That was the process that created the ancient deposits which are now one of the world’s major sources of copper, zinc, lead, gold and silver at Kidd Creek in Ontario, Canada.

Getting those metals from the sea bottom, however, is a lot more difficult than on land. One attempt, about 40 years ago, to bring up manganese nodules from the sea bottom failed, costing investors almost half a billion dollars.

According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, “Since then, the mining industry has been hard at work developing specialized dredgers, pumps, crawlers, drills, platforms, cutters and corers, many of them robotic and all designed to work in the harsh conditions of the deep ocean.

“In addition, increases in the price of many materials such as copper, plus increasing demand from emerging economies is making such ventures more economically feasible. Recent discoveries of rich deposits on the seafloor and advances in technology are generating renewed interest in seafloor mining, including more diamonds, iron sands, cobalt-rich manganese crusts, phosphorite nodules and even those problematic manganese nodules. The rising importance and increasing scarcity of rare earth elements is also making some take a new look at the possibility of refining these materials from seafloor sources.”

The first true deep water mining venture is due to begin soon near Papua, New Guinea. A Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals, has reached agreement with the government of that country and is in the process of having a production support vessel built. The process they will use involves excavating the sea bottom, pumping the ore up to a support vessel, “dewatering” it, pumping the seawater back to the sea bottom, barging the ore to a storage site some 50 miles away, then processing it.

The costs of this project are enormous. Seafloor mining tools have had to be created, a riser and lift system, a production support vessel, a dewatering plant and barges for transport. This is all cutting-edge technology. One early report pegged the total cost of the project at US$450 million, not including the vessel, which will add another $167 million.

Operating costs have been estimated to be about $250,000 a day. All these numbers, however, are three or four years out of date, and are likely to be revised upwards.

There are also great concerns worldwide about the damage this experiment might cause to the sea environment.

Once, it was assumed the sea bottom was dead, like a moonscape. But we have learned recently that the sea bottom is as environmentally rich as the land.

Some researchers have said they believe that removal of parts of the sea floor will result in disturbances to the ecology of the sea bottom, toxicity of the water column and sediment plumes from tailings.

Among the impacts of deep sea mining, sediment plumes could have the greatest impact.

Plumes are caused when the tailings from mining (usually fine particles) are dumped back into the ocean, creating a cloud of particles floating in the water.

Two types of plumes occur – near bottom plumes and surface plumes.

Near bottom plumes occur when the tailings are pumped back down to the mining site. The floating particles increase the cloudiness of the water, clogging filter-feeding apparatuses used by sea bottom organisms.

Surface plumes cause a more serious problem. Depending on the size of the particles and water currents the plumes could spread over vast areas.

The plumes could impact zooplankton and light penetration, in turn affecting the food web of the area.

That’s the last thing we want to do in Bermuda.

Even if Bermuda were in an area known for its sea bottom volcanic activity (which it is not), and therefore an area where mineral deposits are likely to occur, there is just no earthly reason for the Opposition to mislead Bermudians into thinking that this idea is going to be a quick fix for our economic woes.

That the Opposition has done nothing to inform Bermudians about the complexities and challenges of deep sea mining – even though it is an anchor of their so-called economic plan for Bermuda – makes me wonder how serious they are about this idea. The more you look at it the more it seems to be another example of sound bite politics. On the surface, it sounds good, but the deeper you go, the bigger the questions, issues and challenges become.

Once the world (and the Opposition) knows more about extracting deep-sea minerals, and understands the problems associated with the process, then perhaps it will be worth having a look to determine the possibilities for Bermuda. But let’s be very clear about one thing: This is not a “jobs now” idea, and the PLP spokesmen should stop trying to fool people into thinking that.

Glen Smith