Editorial Feature

The Environmental Risks of Deep Seabed Mining

Filho, W et al. recently released a journal paper looking at the legal aspects of deep seabed mining (DSM) and the environmental risks it poses. The paper also suggests key issues miners will need to consider to significantly lower the environmental effects of DSM. This article takes a closer look at the paper.

deep sea mining

Image Credit: Lillac/Shutterstock.com

The demand for minerals—specifically, strategic metals such as cobalt, nickel, copper, and manganese—has been steadily increasing with population growth and changing consumption patterns in the developing world. Certain lab-based alloys can substitute minerals but pose limitations, so mining activities will inevitably continue.

Several countries have started restricting cheap, detrimental mining activities, leading to a higher interest in using deep seabed minerals. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 targets clean manufacturing and the sustainable use of minerals to meet various industrial demands.

At present, almost all mineral resources are extracted from terrestrial ore deposits. However, high-capacity and high-quality ore deposits are becoming arduous to unearth, so the search expands to the deep seabed as an alternative for low-grade mining. Island countries occupy the deep-sea area within their territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which is an area that sovereign states have special rights to explore and use their marine resources.

The deep seabed is generally an area 200 m below sea level. It is regulated by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), called the “Constitution for the oceans.” This legal system facilitates the peaceful settling of disputes and the protection of the oceanic environment and ecosystems.

The Convention was the basis for establishing the International Seabed Authority (ISA) or “the Authority” that aims to regulate activities in the deep seabed to prevent damage to ecosystems and biodiversity. Article 136 of the Convention indicates that the main objective of the deep seabed mining code is regulating the exploitation and development of mineral resources.

No commercial deep-seabed mining activities have occurred so far. This emergent industry took many years to develop due to the limited availability of technology, the cost-benefit dilemma, and the potential and expected environmental impacts.

The Legal Aspects of Deep-Sea Mining

Human interest in mineral extraction from the deep sea has been increasing ever since discovering metals and minerals but interest in DSM did not start before the 1960s. Besides issues with jurisdiction, enforcement, etc., important international DSM players, such as the United States, are not members of the ISA, which could undermine the efforts toward lowering the potential risks of DSM.

Apart from the ISA, other international laws are relevant to DSM. For example, the multilateral agreement of the G7 summit might be a powerful legal and political action to the ISA.

A moratorium on commercial DSM would apply if there were some proof of serious, irreversible damage. However, this resolution is not binding, and no impact on the sponsoring of ISA contracts has been observed until now, further buttressing the need to review the potential environmental impacts of DSM.

Methodology

The desktop study research approach was employed to review and synthesize key insights offered by existing studies on the environmental risks of DSM. Literature from secondary sources about the general environmental impacts of DSM was identified, gathered, and analyzed.

Articles published since the year 2000 were considered since that was the beginning of ISA regulations. Two case studies of DSM were selected so that one (Patania II) is located within the “Area”, and the other case of seabed mining (Solwara I) is outside the Area.

Results

Examples for DSM mining operations and explorations are provided in Table 1. Technological setbacks, difficult international negotiations, and volatile prices for precious metals led to delays, and explorations were even abandoned.

Table 1. DSM operations on Continental Shelves and “the area.” Source: Filho et al., 2021

Resource Location Contract Holder/Country
Seabed mining operations on continental shelves
SMS Bismarck Sea, PNG Nautilus Minerals Inc. (Canada), now acquired by Deep Sea Mining Finance Limited
(Solwara I Project) Diamond Fields International (Canada)
Atlantis II Basin (metalliferous sediments in brine pools), Red Sea Bluewater Minerals (Solomon Islands) Ltd. (Solomon Islands)
Diamonds Namibia continental shelf Diamond Fields (Namibia)
Iron ore sands South Taranaki Bight, west coast of North Island, New Zealand Trans-Tasman Resources (New Zealand)
Westland sands, Ross to Karamea, west coast of South Island, New Zealand Trans-Tasman Resources (New Zealand)
Phosphorites Chatham Rise, east side, South Island, New Zealand Chatham Rock Phosphate (New Zealand)
Western Cape, South Africa Diamond Fields (South Africa)
Groen River to Cape Town, South Africa Green Flash Trading 251 (South Africa)
Cape Town to Cape Infanta, South Africa Green Flash Trading 257 (South Africa)
Sandpiper Marine Phosphate Project,
Walvis Bay, Namibia
Namibian Marine Phosphate (Pty) Ltd. (Namibia)
Exploration contracts in the Area approved by the ISA
PMN Clarion Clipperton Zones of the Pacific Ocean (CCZ) China Minmetals Corporation (China)
Cook Islands Investment Corporation (Cook Islands)
UK Seabed Resources Ltd. (UK)
Ocean Mineral Singapore Pte Ltd. (Singapore company majority-owned by Keppel Corporation, Minority shareholders: Seabed Resources Ltd. (Lockheed Martin UK Holdings Ltd.); Singapore-based Lion City Capital Partners Pte. Ltd.)
G-Tec Sea Minerals Resources NV (Belgium)
Marawa Research and Exploration Ltd. (Republic of Kiribati)
Tonga Offshore Mining Limited (A subsidiary of Nautilus Minerals Inc.)
Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (Republic of Nauru)
Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources of Germany
IFREMER Institut (Institut français de recherche pour l’exploitation de la mer.) (France)
China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association
Government of the Republic of Korea
JSC Yuzhmorgeologiya (Russia)
Interoceanmetal Joint Organization (different nations) (Governments of Bulgaria, Cuba, Czech Republic, Poland, Russian Federation, and Slovakia.)
Deep Ocean Resources Development Co. Ltd.
Global Sea Mineral Resources NV
Indian Ocean Government of India
  Western Pacific Ocean Beijing Pioneer Hi-Tech Development Corporation
SMS Central Indian Ocean Government of India
BGR (Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources of Germany.) of Germany
Mid-Atlantic Ridge IFREMER Institut (France)
Central Indian Ridge Government of the Republic of Korea
Mid-Atlantic Ridge Government of the Russian Federation
Government of the Republic of Poland
IFREMER Institut (France)
Southwest Indian Ridge China Ocean Mineral Resources
Research and Development Association
  Arctic Mid-Ocean Ridge (AMOR) Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Norway)
CRC Rio Grande Rise, South Atlantic Ocean Companhia De Pesquisa de Recursos Minerais (The Geological Survey of Brazil.)
Western Pacific Ocean Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC)
  China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development
  Association (COMRA)
The Republic of Korea
Magellan Mountains/Pacific Ocean Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation

 

The major activities that cause impacts and environmental issues related to DSM are summarized in Table 2. The first two categorized are activities that cause impacts, which are related to sediments from mining activities and mine tailings, and the toxicity of sediments. The third category consists of the potential impacts on plants and animals.

Table 2. Major risk-prone DSM activities and their potential impacts on the environment. Source: Filho et al., 2021

Activities and Environmental Impacts References
Sediments from mining activities and mine tailings
Nutrient enrichment Beaudoin and Baker; Sharma et al. 
Masking of sunlight and bioluminescence Sharma 
Alteration of water properties Hauton et al.; Dover et al.; Peukert et al.
Impact on the mining operation Miller et al.; Weaver et al. 
Oxygen depletion due to
organic matter in plumes
Gillard et al., 2019; Drazen et al. 2020
Sediment’s toxicity
Sediment toxicity
caused by sulfides
Boschen et al.; Collins et al. 
Sediment toxicity
caused by manganese
Peukert et al.
Sediment toxicity
caused by metals
Hauton et al. 
Impact on fauna and flora
Removal of fauna and flora Peukert et al.; Boschen et al.; Collins et al.; Baker et al.; Jones et al.; Ramirez-Llodra et al.
Burial of organisms, e.g., by re-deposition of plumes Baker et al.; Jones et al.; Ramirez-Llodra et al.; Glover and Smith 
Introduction of new species
to the ecosystem
Van Dover; Van Dover et al. 
Alteration of substrata Gollner et al.; Halfar and Fujita 
Changes in local currents Baker et al.; Ramirez-Llodra et al.; Van Dover 
Changes in temperature Gollner et al. 
Noise Baker et al.; Gollner et al.; Gena

 

Case Study A: Patania II (Continental Shelf)

Patania II is the provisional name of a pre-prototype collector vehicle that is to be used for DSM of nodules on the seafloor in the Clarion–Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCFZ) shown in Figure 1. The vehicle is intended for scientific projects to deliver information about the technological feasibility and the likely environmental impacts of mining activities.

The location of Patania II in the North Pacific Ocean (map created by the authors).

Figure 1. The location of Patania II in the North Pacific Ocean (map created by the authors). Image Credit: Filho et al., 2021

An overview of the environmental risks related to this project is provided in Table 3.

Table 3. Some of the environmental risks of the Patania II project (modified from GSR). Source: Filho et al., 2021

Activity Event Potential Environmental Impact
Settling on seafloor and moving Local disturbance of
habitat
Seafloor surface structure will change
Compaction of sediment The death of organisms changes species diversity
Collector Head Operation Removal of habitat Changes in seafloor surface structure
Removal of organisms Death of organisms, changes in abundance, and species diversity
Plume generation Smothering of organisms, increased food supply for benthos, reduction of bioluminescence, leading to changes in biodiversity
Release of metals from sediments into the water column Trace metal uptake
The lighting of Patania II, fauna attraction Some individuals attracted to the suction area may be lost
Noise and vibration Local disturbance to fauna
Hydraulic fluid leaks Environmental impacts caused by ~0.9 m3 fluid leaks (assuming total loss from a single machine)
Failure or technical malfunction, loss of power and/or communications Patania II tool will be left on the seafloor
Raising/lowering machine to/from a vessel Fauna attraction during ascent and descent Entanglement of fauna
Sonar Noise Cetacean disturbance
Umbilicals Entanglement Loss of equipment, production impact
Hazard in the water column Cetacean entanglement

 

Case Study B: Solwara I

The Solwara I project, whose location is shown in Figure 2, was expected to be the world’s first large-scale DSM activity. The fields in the area contain a rich deposit of seafloor massive sulfides (SMS) with base metals, copper, and zinc (Table 4), as well as relatively high grades of gold and silver.

The location of Solwara I in the Bismarck Sea.

Figure 2. The location of Solwara I in the Bismarck Sea. Image Credit: Filho et al., 2021

Table 4. Indicated and inferred mineral resources for Solwara I. Source: Filho et al., 2021

Domain Tonnes Cu (%) Au (g/t) Ag (g/t) Zn (%)
Massive sulphide (indicated) 870,000 6.8 4.8 23 0.4
Massive sulphide (inferred) 1,300,000 7.3 6.5 28 0.4
Chimney (inferred) 80,000 11 17 170 6
Lithified sediments (inferred) 20,000 4.5 5.2 36 0.6
Total 2,170,000        

 

Several potential and project-related environmental impacts of this project have been identified (see Table 5).

Table 5. Overview of the environmental issues related to the Solwara I project. Source: Filho et al., 2021

Environmental Zone Potential Environmental Impact
Benthic
(seafloor)
Changing seafloor surface structure due to habitat removal
Loss of endemic and rare species, habitat loss, decreased biodiversity at different levels such as genetic, species, and phylogenetic
Decreasing seafloor primary production
Modifying trophic interactions
Smothering of organisms and toxic effects due to sediment plume generation and losing material from riser transfer pipe
Losing adjacent communities due to changing hydrothermal activity
Reduced water quality from hydraulic leaks
The anger of transplanting organisms from one mining site to another
Bathypelagic
(>1000 m)
Toxic effects of plumes discharged at depth from dewatering
Losing organisms attracted to the suction area by surface mount lights
Reducing bioluminescence due to plume generation
Mesopelagic
(200–1000 m)
Toxic effects on pelagic biota, including bioaccumulation through releasing metals into the water column
Disturbing cetaceans due to noise from mining and vessel equipment
Epipelagic
(<200 m)
Nutrient over-supply and heightened productivity due to discharging treated sewage and macerated waste
Toxic effects due to spilling of ore or hazardous material caused by mining surface vessels
The demise of aboriginal animals due to exotic species introduction through ballast water and hulls
Surface Effects on the air quality due to exhaust gases from vessels and machinery

 

Discussion

The DSM process has the potential of causing physical and environmental damages to the marine ecosystem. According to Deep Green, DSM is dominated by western private mining companies to serve their economic interests while portraying the illusion that the practice is a universal public good. However, the literature and both case studies reviewed in the previous section reveal various significant impacts on the biological, chemical, and physical seafloor environment.

Benthic organisms are likely to be buried, and the respiratory surfaces of filter feeders can be clogged. There is also a growing concern about the effects of sediment plumes on the midwater fauna.

The DSM process may also cause light and sound pollution, affecting many marine species, such as fish, mammals, and invertebrates. Potential adverse effects of noise on marine species are seen in behavior changes, reduced communication ranges and foraging ability, decreased predator prevention, and habitat avoidance. Lighting may induce temporary blindness or deteriorated bioluminescence functions.

The seabed can be significantly disturbed, likely leading to a micro-topography change. Disturbing the seabed through waste disposal will also impact marine animal and plant species and biodiversity.

Other hazards that may affect the water and air quality can be caused by leaks of hydraulic fluids, fuel spills, unexpected equipment malfunctions, and greenhouse gas emissions from operations.

Developing and implementing monitoring and mitigation measures is significant to reducing the harmful effect of DSM on the marine ecosystem and human health. These measures can help to avoid or minimize harming the ecosystem while restoring and maintaining its resilience.

Conclusions

The issue of DSM is a complex one with a high significance. Although the magnitude of potential environmental impacts is difficult to describe and assess, it is obvious that severe and irreparable environmental impacts at the mining sites will occur.

The case studies presented in this article show how vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems are and the many risks that DSM poses, indicating that adequate mechanisms are needed to regulate DSM and minimize its environmental impacts properly.

Since the worldwide demand for minerals is growing, there is a pressing need to establish standard environmental impact assessments and ecosystem conservation procedures. Only these procedures can ensure that mining operations in the international seabed area do not lead to catastrophic consequences.

Journal Reference:

Filho, W. L., Abubakar I. R., Nunes C., Platje J. J., Ozuyar P. G., Will M., Nagy G. J., Al-Amin A. Q., Hunt J. D., Li C., (2021) Deep Seabed Mining: A Note on Some Potentials and Risks to the Sustainable Mineral Extraction from the Oceans. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering. Available at: doi.org/10.3390/jmse9050521.

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