Rare Earths meets Deep Sea Mining

2 August 2012
Natalie Lowrey, Communications Coordinator

The rush to mine our oceans

The first experimental deep sea mining project in the world to get the green light has been given to Canadian-owned Nautilus Minerals with it’s Solwara 1 project in Papua New Guinea.

A coalition of groups in the Pacific are calling to stop experimental seabed mining. The key factors for not wanting this ‘frontier’ industry to go ahead include a flawed EIS; little adherence to the Precautionary Principle by Nautilus, governments and leading Pacific institutions like SOPAC; and a lack of free, prior and informed consent in regards to local communities that are socially, culturally and economically tied to the ocean.

The Deep Sea Mining campaign has put out a report highlighting the risks of deep sea mining, especially the threats to the unique ecology of hydrothermal vents and the general uncertainty surrounding potential impacts. The report has gained attention in both the New York Times and The Guardian.

The Solwara 1 project is currently stalled due to a dispute between the PNG government and Nautilus and a lack of finances.

Mining our oceans for rare earths

In the past month Japan has discovered up to 7 million tonnes of rare earths in Pacific seabeds near one of their eastern islands. This recent discovery has got industry excited hoping that digging up deep seabeds for rare earths can break China’s monopoly.

Rare Earths is not alone in controversy, the largest environment issue in Malaysian history is centred around the processing of these minerals. Like deep sea mining there is an element of experimentation that is at play and very little precaution considering radioactivity is a major by-product of processing. China closed of it’s exports to the world citing environmental devastation.

For the past 18 months citizens from all walks of life in Malaysia have walked the streets, dominated the media and taken to the courts to stop Australian rare earth miner Lynas Corporation from developing the world’s largest rare earth processing plant in Kuantan. In light of a New York Times article Kuantan residents were awakened to the fact that their government had given the green-light to a project against their consent – an all too familiar a story.

The Lynas Advanced Materials Plant is touted as the largest rare earth refinery, the LAMP will use 720 tons of concentrated Hydrochloride Acid (sulphuric acid) per day and leave behind 28,000 tonnes of solid waste per year, enough to fill 126 olympic size swimming pools. A by-product of this waste is radioactive Thorium (Th) which is dangerous to human health.

To top off these dangerous industries being pushed by corporations and governments at the expense of people and the environment, China has announced recently that it wants to set up in the Western Pacific, a nuclear-powered mobiledeep-sea station. Although it is not marked to be developed until 2030, they are looking at a prototype set to launch by 2015.

The question remains as to why there is very little being done to consider the reduction, reuse and recycling of our vast consumption of the worlds minerals. Rare earths has pushed some industry to consider recycling but this is still being done in a very small scale, no where near what is needed.

Human endeavour has built sky-scrapers, sent humans into space, created mega-mines and now the possibility of digging up our deep seabeds, so why aren’t we able to revolutionise our recycling? The answer is simply profits. And as corporations and governments continue to push for profits at all costs by digging up our lands and seabeds communities are left with the legacy of environmental damage, social upheaval and cultural desecration.

We already know the devastating impacts of processing rare earth’s, yet industry and governments continue to push ahead. We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the surface of our deep seabeds, yet industry and governments continue to push ahead. As they push harder undeniably the opposition by civil society with continue to push harder back, not just in Malaysia and the Pacific but globally.


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