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EPA hearing opens on massive Taranaki iron sands project (Video)

Taranaki iron sands project back in front of the EPA.

A lawyer representing fisheries firms says a revived bid by a mining company to scoop up a billion tonnes of iron sands from the seabed off the Taranaki coast is "the same old car with a new lick of paint".

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is meeting in Wellington on Thursday to hear arguments for and against the venture from miner Trans Tasman Resources (TTR), after rejecting its first application in 2014.

If the venture gets the green light, TTR would mine 50 million tonnes of sands each year for up to 35 years from shallow waters about 25 kilometres off the coast, separating out 5 million tonnes of concentrated iron ore, annually, for export.

Iron ore can be extracted from black sand using magnets, with discarded material returned to the seabed.

Robert Mackill, representing Talley and other fishing companies, said they did not oppose seabed mining per se, but had "serious reservations" about TTR's proposal.

Duncan Currie, an environmental lawyer representing Greenpeace and Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, said the proposal threatened marine animals including Maui dolphins and would "degrade the quality of the oceans as a whole". 

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The 66 square kilometres off the South Taranaki coast where Trans Tasman Resources has applied to mine iron ore.

EPA committee chairman Alick Shaw, a former deputy mayor of Wellington City Council, said it was aware of the passion people felt about the proposed venture, but it was "not a popularity contest" and the EPA would not be swayed by the volume of submissions or "repetition".

"In the end it is the information and the applicability of the law that is the key. It is not until the hearing is over and until the committee has gone through all the material ... that we will be in a position to make a decision," he said.

TTR chairman Alan Eggers said the company was about 45 per cent foreign-owned, with the rest of the company held by New Zealand investors, including himself.

The company last year estimated the mining operation would directly employ 463 people, boost New Zealand's annual exports by $350m and result in the payment of royalties worth $7m a year to the Crown.

TTR's original application for the seabed mining was rejected by the EPA because of concerns about the impact it could have on the marine environment. 

The company has since modified its proposal, setting out how it would pipe the 45 million tonnes of waste sediment it extracted each year back on to the mined seabed.

Mike Holm, TTR's legal counsel, told the hearing a lot of work had gone into analysing the plume that would be created when dredged sediment was returned to the seabed.

"It is accepted that the recovery of iron sands will have some impact on the environment" but the potential effects on the marine environment would be "very small to negligible", he said.

Currie said TTR's application differed in only two regards from the earlier application that had been rejected by the EPA. 

Civil engineering firm HR Wallingford had provided more evidence for TTR about the plume – evidence which he said was "flawed" and subject to many uncertainties – and TTR had revised its economic model.

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said the proposal was a terrible one "not just in terms of environmental impacts, but also due to the potential damage to New Zealand's 'clean green' reputation and tourist industry".

The wider South Taranaki Bight had been recognised as an important blue whale foraging ground, "possibly one of only five known in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica," he said.

Holm said Taranaki's oil and gas industry had not appeared to have a negative impact on tourism. "There are no tourist attractions in or close to the mining site."

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will voice its conditional support for the seabed mining on Friday week. 

Scientist Peter Longdill, representing the Department of Conservation, will give evidence to the committee on Monday.

Another round of hearings will take place in New Plymouth in March and no date has been set by the EPA for a decision.




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