April 24, 2024
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International deep seabed mining kicks off under “secrecy agreement”, the first in: Canada
WT Interview with Catherine Coumans, Ph.D. MiningWatch Canada

WT: This is quite a topic. Can you tell us what is this press release you have out, and why is it so important?

Catherine Coumans: I don’t know how much your listeners/readers are familiar with deep-seabed mining.

This is something the mining industry dearly wants, mining the deep seabed, pushing for this to go ahead. The way this would be allowed in international waters is there is an agency called International Seabed Authority (ISA) which is based in Jamaica, which almost no one has heard of, which is made up of 168 states and the European Union.

A Canadian metals company is at the forefront, promoting, marketing and pushing to have this industry go ahead, a whole new expansion of mining into the least disturbed ecosystem on earth, also extremely fragile, and the least understood ecosystem.

As of now, there is no deep seabed mining happening, but there are thirty-one concessions that have been granted for exploration. The Canadian metals company is in front, pushing for really large-scale exploration.

So, the Canadian metals company prepared an environmental impact statement to do a major exploration. They want to get 3,600 tonnes of “poly-metallic nodules”, which are habitats for all kinds of (life)in the deep seabed. The permitting request and documentation were very weak, and the ISA in June (2022) had said “No. You don’t have enough information here for us to allow this to go ahead”. 

Then lo and behold, in September (2022), they (the Canadian metals company) had a permit. They got that permit through something called a “secrecy agreement”.

WT: Tell me about that.

Coumans: I don’t know how much you want to go into the weeds here. 

The ISA has a subcommittee called the legal and technical committee, tasked with approving - or not - prospectus submitted by companies to do projects, whether a (mining) permit or a concession to do exploration. The legal and technical committee had actually said last summer (June 2002), “No” the information provided by the metals company is not sufficient to grant a permit for exploration, and this was public information, we knew this.

The company put out a press release in September, even before the ISA, to say, “We have been given a permit, we are off, we are going!”.

Later, information came out that a small working group was put together, so not the whole ISA legal and technical committee, but a small subgroup which had apparently reviewed “new information” provided by the metals company. This information was not made public, was not disclosed to those engaged in the process, and has still not been made public anywhere. The working group said they now think (the permit application) is ok, this should go ahead, and you have 24 hours to respond if there is a concern. They claim they got no emails back, so the permit was granted. They called it a secrecy procedure.

WT: I want to go back a step or two, this is an organization that has some sort of relevance on the world stage, I am trying to understand, they are out of Jamaica, and this is a globally sanctioned group. How was the ISA established?

Coumans: It was established in 1994 under the United Nations (UN) but it is an autonomous body. It is very unique, in that it is a multi-state governance body over the private sector, and as far as I know, is the only example of this. It’s very bizarre.

What you need to understand, is that the deep seabed in international waters is actually designated by the UN as the “Common Heritage of humankind”, or mankind, now we call it humankind.

That is, it doesn’t belong to any one state. And yet the mining industry has discovered these really rich habitats for metals, (being) habitats for life in a very unique part of the world, and they want to mine these habitats.

In 1994 when the ISA was created, it had two very much conflicting mandates: one was to protect the environment, the ecosystem of the deep seabed for humankind, and the other was to permit mining if it would not destroy the ecosystem. That is impossible.

At the time it was thought this ecosystem was quite barren, that there wasn’t much down there. We are talking four to six kilometers underwater. There is huge pressure down there, it’s completely dark and cold, just above zero degrees. The thinking was, if there was anything down there, it wouldn’t be much. This, we now know, is not true. We know this is an incredibly vibrant eco-system, there are more species down there than we imagined, but only a fraction of those have been identified, and none have been studied, as to how they relate to other organisms in the entire water column, all that work has not been done.

WT: Where is the drill test bed they are working on?

Coumans: The metals company has three concessions in an area between Mexico and Hawaii known as the Clarion-Clipperton zone, in the Pacific. The tests they wanted to run are on one of these concessions. They want to bring up these things called poly-metallic nodules, which are really unusual things on the seabed. These take millions of years to form, so once they are mined and destroyed, they are not coming back. This already had a dodgy lead-up to it, it shouldn’t have gone ahead. Those of us who reviewed the environmental impact statement found it very lacking. Reviewers included the UK government which really trashed it as well and even the legal and technical committee of the ISA, which is not reticent in granting permits, they have never turned down a request for a concession. Even though they were reticent here, they did not think this metals company was ready to do this test. Understand, this is not a company with any mining experience at all, it's really a start-up.

WT: I understand this is a UN subset organization, I get they haven’t turned down anyone that has asked. To get on to the present day, how did Greenpeace show up in this? I read the press release, I found the video footage, and I gathered this would be Greenpeace filming with one of their crews.

Coumans: No.

The test was going to go ahead, the ship was on its way, and we get this press release saying, “Yahoo! We’re on our way!” There’s a large number of organizations working collaboratively, internationally who are very concerned about deep seabed mining and are calling for at least a moratorium on the practise until more science can be conducted independently, or banned. Greenpeace, MiningWatch and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign and many, many others are part of this international movement.

The way the footage came about, the bottom line is, this test went ahead. Greenpeace did not have a ship in the area, as it was all very sudden and unexpected, but there was another vessel, another ship with scientists there to monitor this test. These are independent scientists, contracted by the ISA to gather data so that there would be a scientific investigation done around the test, and that information should be provided to the public.

When the (mining) test went awry, suddenly there was huge spillage flowing off the (exploration) ship with sediment and parts of poly-metallic nodules that had been dragged up off the deep seabed, now flowing off the ship and out of the hold, scientists on the second ship started filming.

Many people filmed and made (footage) available to a large group of people within this movement. We got that footage while the ship was still out there, and we all agreed to wait to publish this, to avoid repercussions for the scientists. Now we have decided that January was a good time to release this. It was published by MiningWatch, Greenpeace and Deep Sea Mining Campaign but the video itself was not taken by any of our organizations. We are not the only ones with access to this footage.

WT: Is there are Canadian Parliamentarian engaged in this or a Canadian federal agency that is part of the ISA?

Coumans: Yes, Canada is a member of the ISA. Canada sends delegations from various departments to the meetings. For a very long time, and until very recently, Canada sent one person; he was with Global Affairs Canada, and he was very inactive at these meetings. There are always requests for countries to comment on various documents prepared there, Canada didn’t put in comments to six requests in a row, but that has changed now.

WT: Did Global Affairs comment on this test?

Coumans: Global Affairs is not commenting at all on what the Canadian metals company is doing, and has not commented on the whole issue of deep seabed mining.

Canada has been trying to stay under the radar on this issue, so we have been trying to raise awareness, particularly because it is a Canadian company at the forefront of this. We have had numerous conversations with the Canadian departments involved in the ISA meetings, so there are larger teams going, three people are going now. We have had many conversations with them, but Canada does not actually have a position on deep seabed mining, there is no policy, no position statement on this.

WT: Is it a fair statement to say, as far as you are concerned, that there are laws on the books to protect the north from deep seabed mining? Who could not connect this to the Deep Sea Horizon crisis?

Coumans: The real concern, I would argue that we do have laws on the books now that would protect Canadian territorial waters from deep seabed mining, however, the laws are very easily changed. We have watched this time and time again. There used to be a prohibition in Canada on dumping mine waste into lakes and rivers. They got around that prohibition by adding an obscure schedule to an obscure law, and now they can, in a legislative way, declare a part of a river or a part of a lake as a tailings waste dump place. So, since 2002, our rivers and lakes are being used to dump mine tailings waste. Before 2002, this was illegal.

WT: This is determined at the federal level, a federal policy? I would have thought the province would have a lot to say about something like this.

Coumans: No, the provinces cannot declare a ban on deep seabed mining in their territorial waters, which is very unfortunate. In the US, this is very important, California Oregon, and Washington -- going right up the Pacific coast -- have issued bans on deep seabed mining in their territorial waters. British Columbia cannot do this, they can only advocate for the feds. Our concern is, the way Canada is behaving at the ISA meetings, we are not taking a stand against deep seabed mining. Other countries are slowly beginning to. In the last year, we have at least twelve other countries that have taken a moratorium position, saying (deep seabed mining) should not happen any time soon. France has called for an outright ban, deep seabed mining should not happen at all, should never happen. It’s almost like treating the deep seabed as Antarctica, with no mining. Canada has not joined those countries. The concern is if the regulations are finalized for full-scale mining, and ISA is under pressure to finalize the regulations by June this year, if this happens, permits can be issued to start full-scale mining operations.

When those international regulations are finalized, my concern is that Canada will harmonize our internal regulations with the international, and that will open our territorial waters to deep seabed mining, including the north.

WT: If we all should be hitting the panic button, what’s the best case scenario for MiningWatch, or for instance, Greenpeace? Is it time to get out the battle boats again and have at it, or do we need to lobby, petition Parliament perhaps?

Coumans: We need to let our Parliamentarians and let our government know that Canadians are becoming aware of this, (decisions on deep seabed mining) are no longer secretly happening in Jamaica. We need to let our MPs know that we are concerned about this, we want a ban on deep seabed mining in Canadian territorial waters and we want a long moratorium, ten to fifteen years, or twenty-year moratorium on deep seabed mining in international waters.

One way that Canadians can do something about this, is we have created a microsite on this, there is a course of action there. There is now an effort to get international Parliamentarians to sign on to a statement calling for a moratorium on deep seabed mining. Parliamentarians from all kinds of countries around the world are signing on to this, including one person from Canada, Gordon Johns from British Columbia, NDP. Far more people need to be signing on.

Everyone has a member of Parliament, everyone can go to their MP and say, “Hey, this is a really big concern for us, we want to know that you are behind this, stop destruction of the seabed on a huge scale, we want you to sign”, encourage them to sign this as a sign to our politicians and to our government that Canadian MPs are aware of this and getting pressure from constituents. We have information on this at the following site

You can see the action button right on the home page, but there is a lot more information on that site for anyone that wants to learn more about this.

WT: I will leave it there, thinking this over, remembering Deep Water Horizon. Thanks for doing this.

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