Fight over marine mining heats up

By Jade McClune

THE likelihood that intensive marine mining off the Namibian coast would disturb the seabed and disrupt the sensitive ecosystem has both workers in the fishing industry and marine scientists up in arms. Several union-led protests took place this week, including one at Walvis Bay on Monday and another in Windhoek on Tuesday against the plan.

Namibia Marine Phosphate Ltd (NMP) is eager to develop the Sandpiper Marine Phosphate Project some 160 km south of Walvis Bay. Omani billionaire Mohammed Al Barwani, the majority owner of NMP is said to be waiting for an official decision on NMP’s application for environmental clearance.

The mining would be done at sea and the processing on land. NMP aims to mine phosphate deposits using deep-water dredging techniques. The material will be transferred to land-based operation near Walvis Bay where the phosphate sands would be separated from other marine sediments.

One of the local linchpins of the project, Knowledge Katti was not convinced that the protestors understood the aims of NMP, which he hopes will initiate the first-ever marine phosphate mining project in the world near his home town.

Katti wrote on Twitter that “The industrial processing of any mineral and management of any byproduct (toxic or not) is done in strict compliance with Namibian environmental regulations, as well as association and global industry best practices.

“There is no toxic waste from seabed mining of phosphate! As we have explained our process many times. We use sea water to process separating the phosphate sand from the shell and mud.” He said the mass protests were intended to “Mislead the employees. We will educate the unemployed.”

The scoping report for the ‘Proposed recovery of phosphate enriched sediments from the Marine Mining License Area No. 170 off Walvis Bay’ submitted in April 2012 indicates though that NMP would in fact produce radioactive discharge and other heavy metals in the enrichment process.

The 2012 report said AquiSim Consulting had been appointed to “Conduct a radiation impact study of the future impacts during the operation and closure of the land based process, including the transport of product to the port and the loading thereof into vessels for export.

“This study should take account of sensitive areas such as the salt works, personnel exposed to the process, adjoining residential areas, and issues raised during scoping. The cumulative impact over time due to the build-up of radioactive material in the various stages of the process must be described.”

Enviro Dynamics said NMP’s waste disposal would have to be closely monitored: “Volume, temperature, radioactivity levels, chemical analysis, and microbial content of any effluent and or waste material, inclusive of shell grit, returned to the sea are required.”

Risks were posed by heavy metals, changes in the PH levels, microbiological contamination and pond breaches. Turbidity of the water returned to the sea (including fine dust particles) also causes the gills of fish to become clogged, presenting a potential threat to the fishing industry and could also lead to more frequent phytoplankton blooms, or oxygen-deprived “dead zones” in the ocean.

The Marine Resources Act states that: “Any person who discharges in… or permits to be discharged in Namibian waters anything which is or may be injurious to marine resources, or which may disturb or change the ecological balance in any area of the sea… shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding N$500 000.”

Analysts involved in the scoping study said Sandpiper “is an example of such an industry that has the potential to alter the natural background radiation conditions” and therefore “safety assessments should consider all relevant exposure conditions, exposure pathways (e.g. atmospheric, surface water and groundwater pathways) and exposure modes (e.g. ingestion, inhalation and external exposure).”

Economist Rowland Brown wanted to know if there is evidence of harmful impacts. “I would like to see it as I have not yet. All I have seen is environmental studies that suggest the impact would be minimal… The comprehensive EIA suggests damage will be minimal. [The] logical approach is to monitor closely [and] force stoppage if issues arise,” he tweeted.

Professor Henning Melber argued for a precautionary approach. “We cannot afford to follow in the footsteps of Esau in the Old Testament and sell Namibia’s birthright for a mess of pottage. In our case, economic and environmental pottage.” He said, “Since marine phosphate mining has due to the anticipated risks not been allowed anywhere yet, it seems difficult to provide such evidence beyond the environmental risk studies. It would be a bit late to show the evidence once the damage is done...

“The demand for ‘evidence’ would of course argue that as long as there is no marine phosphate mining there cannot be any negative evidence of it. This makes a mockery of any environmental assessment, because it anticipates damage that has not yet happened. According to this logic we should welcome the Russian offer to build an underwater nuclear power plant off the Namibian coast. After all, there is no convincing evidence that this might do harm. And if it explodes, we simply stop the project.”