A debate has erupted over the scientific validity of the environmental impact statement (EIS) of the world's first deep-sea mine, located off the coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The furore may push the PNG government to convene a further roundtable meeting for experts, before the mine becomes operational next year.
The original impact assessment, which prompted the government to give a green light to the mine in 2009, was "completely unacceptable by scientific standards" and based on "second rate science," according to a review published by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign pressure group this week (5 November).
It says the EIS — which paved the way for a Canadian company Nautilus being granted a 20-year mining lease in 2011 — failed to adequately assess the risk of metals contaminating fisheries and people.
The PNG government and Nautilus Minerals Inc., the Toronto-based company set to run the Solwara 1 deep-sea mine, claim to be taking the new review seriously, while Coffey Natural Systems, the consultancy firm responsible for the EIS, maintains its assessment was scientifically valid.
Nautilus plans to mine sediments from underwater hydrothermal vents that deposit metals such as copper, gold and silver in heavy concentrations on the region's sea floor.
The Solwara 1 mine will excavate and pump sediment to a floating platform, where the ore will be extracted and the waste rock returned to the sea floor via pipes.
The 2008 assessment or EIS stated that the project would be "socially acceptable, environmentally responsible, technologically achievable and economically viable".
But the review of that EIS, written by John Luick, a physical oceanographer at the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), finds it contained "serious omissions and flaws". In particular, these relate to data provided on the speed and direction of currents at different depths, and on the upwelling of material from the seabed.
Because of the omissions, it is impossible to assess adequately the potential contamination to humans and fisheries, the review states.
Furthermore, the EIS understated the risk of metals entering the water through emissions on the seabed, leakage during the pumping process, or spills on the surface, Luick said.
"They didn't do a proper analysis," he told SciDev.Net.
A spokesman for Nautilus said the company was taking the review seriously and would issue a statement soon.
Gunther Joku, special projects director for PNG's Department of Environment and Conservation, said he would like to hold a forum, so that the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, Nautilus and any other interested groups can present their views publicly.
This forum would enable scientists to explain what the project is about, and ensure that experts from all interested groups have a space to convene, Joku told SciDev.Net.
"We [would] also explain what the government does in terms of applying laws to the project," he added.
But Coffey Natural Systems stands by its results, and says the PNG environment department even commissioned a second consultancy firm, Cardno, to peer review the EIS before granting Nautilus its environmental permit.
Yet, findings of that review have not been made public, and the scientific community appears divided on the issue.
Chalapan Kaluwin, a professor of environmental science at the University of Papua New Guinea, says "the EIS should have provided a solid basis for the PNG government to decide whether to approve this project, and if so, under what conditions".
"The findings of this new report suggest these important decisions were made on the basis of junk science," he said.
However, John Wiltshire, associate chair of the University of Hawaii's ocean and resources engineering department, said he was not concerned by the EIS's level of analysis.
"My sense is that Nautilus has done a reasonable amount of work," he told SciDev.Net. "I don't think they would have come to a different conclusion if they had done more analysis."
See below for the full review: