HELEN DAVIDSON & BEN DOHERTY | The Guardian | Extract
SYDNEY - A controversial experimental deep-sea mine is being challenged in court by environmental groups who have accused the Papua New Guinea government of withholding key documents about its approval.
Nautilus Minerals Inc, a Canada-based company primarily owned by Russian and Omani mining firms, wants to extract gold and copper deposits from 1.6km below the surface of the Bismarck Sea, using a seabed mining technique never before used in commercial operations.
Nautilus told the Guardian it has conducted dozens of community meetings – reaching more than 30,000 people from nearby islands – and has had its key documents, including a detailed environmental impact statement, publicly available for years.
But members of nearby communities, represented by the Port Moresby-based Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights Inc (Celcor), claim they were not adequately consulted and that they hold grave concerns over its impact.
There are also concerns over its financial viability and the PNG government’s stake in it.
Celcor, which has been assisted by the New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office, formally lodged an application in PNG’s national court and served the PNG government last week.
It said key documents had not been published, and that under the PNG constitution affected residents had a right to the information.
The plaintiffs have previously sought documents including the original permit, the environmental management plan and independent reviews, all oceanographic data on the site, and any studies or modelling of the environmental, social, health, culture and economic impacts.
They had also asked for any agreements made between Nautilus and the PNG government or other entities in relation to the project, and evidence of the mining minister’s original granting of the exploration licence and his reasons.
“Our major concern is the environmental impact of this project, since there is no independent environmental study,” a plaintiff, Jonathan Mesulam, from PNG’s New Ireland Province, said.
Mesulam criticised the company’s consultation approach, and said the community at large did not give “free, prior and informed consent” on the company’s permit.
“They had no control. It has been organised by the former minister, and a few other people from the local level government,” he said.
The Solwara 1 field, in a volcanic area between the islands of New Britain and New Ireland, was identified by Australia’s CSIRO in 1996. Nautilus was granted an environmental permit for the field in 2009, and a mining licence in 2011.
Seabed mining – which Nautilus described as “the next big disruptive technology” – is usually based around areas of metallic nodules, or active or extinct hydrothermal vents, which carry valuable metal deposits.
This month Nautilus issued a statement to the Toronto Stock Exchange warning of cash flow and financing difficulties, deferring for a third time its due date for a required $10m funding injection.