Marine Biologist takes issue with EPA seabed mining decision

Chile rejected a huge mining deal because of concerns for its penguins, while New Zealand pursues seabed mining that threatens marine life. Now there are fears for the integrity of supposedly science-based decision-making processes here says Canterbury marine biologist, Dr Andrew Wright, in the Wanganui Chronicle.

In a discussion of the importance of science for effective decision making, Dr Wright says:

LAST week the Chilean government rejected a controversial $2.5-billion copper and iron project, with Chile's Ministers' Committee highlighting numerous flaws with the project that may have had a significant impact on a Humboldt penguin reserve.

This decision is in stark contrast to the one made early this month by New Zealand's Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) when it approved another highly controversial project, granting Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) consent to mine a large area of the seabed off the Taranaki coastline over the next 35 years.

Seabed mining, especially on this scale, has never been done anywhere. Dissenting members of the Decision-making Committee (DMC) that approved the project noted the considerable uncertainty around the project's impacts required them to "favour caution and environmental protection" in making their decision. However, members favouring the project took a different view.

The EPA decision was aided by an impact assessment produced by TTR that, in the words of dissenting DMC members, "largely ignored" their responsibilities.

The main issue is that there is little reliable information on the environment within the project area and the animals that inhabit it. Similarly, much of the limited discussions of possible impacts rely on extrapolations from much smaller projects.

For example, the DMC accepted TTR's supposition that operational noise pollution would not have any impacts on whales and dolphins beyond 23km from the mining as the noise would have dropped below a particular level. But the threshold used was derived from expert opinion applicable to US law in the late 1990s.

It focuses on behavioural impacts only and does not consider other effects, such as stress responses and masking, which is also known as "the cocktail party effect", where communication becomes more difficult as background noise levels rise.

Once the level was selected, TTR's noise expert provided a model that demonstrated that the project would meet this target. However, the source level, which was based on a much smaller operation, was perhaps too conveniently identical to the largest possible level that could be used and still meet that selected threshold.

Opposition experts highlighted the flaws in the data collected on the smaller operation and expressed their concern over uncertainties, but these were dismissed.

In contrast, TTR limited their discussion of impacts primarily to whales and dolphins that had been sighted in the area. While this sounds reasonable, the problem is that there have been no properly designed surveys in the area, which means that areas without ad-hoc sighting information cannot be assumed to be devoid of whales.

Despite this lack of data, TTR dismissed information from stranded, or "beach-cast", animals, amazingly with support from government scientists, due to the fact that they are likely sick and thus cannot be assumed to indicate animals are present in the region to any real degree.

While this uncertainty is technically correct, published scientific reports elsewhere in the world indicate that strandings are, in fact, a reasonable predictor of animal occurrence.

The dissenting DMC members agreed, noting "lack of data is not a proof of absence," however the prevailing opinion decided in this case not to accept the information, due to the uncertainties involved.

This uneven handling of uncertainty may appear to be reasonable in the face of the need to make decisions. At least until you realise that the TTR project was approved in a 2-2 vote, after essentially the same project was dismissed in 2014. Committee chairman Alick Shaw held the casting vote.

And it is strange that a decision by an agency tasked with the protection of the environment should be swung by an individual who, when leaving the Labour Party in 2000, declared himself to be, "unashamedly pro-business".

I believe that it is this political leaning that shaped the disparate treatment of scientific uncertainty in the TTR decision - the downplaying of accepted scientific information in favour of more limited, and convenient, expert opinion.

The long-established and scientifically supported precautionary principle - to do no harm in the face of uncertainty - was cast aside. Even the opportunity to learn about the project and its impacts before revisiting the decision in, say, five years was passed up.

This is troubling for many reasons, but perhaps most worrying is the way that science and scientists were treated. Here in New Zealand, as we watch events unfold in the United States and the United Kingdom, many may feel a sense of detachment. Partly this is due to distance and the fact that New Zealand will probably only be tangentially affected.

There is also a feeling that such things couldn't happen here - all the scheming, potentially illegal collusion with foreign powers, and the casual use of "alternative facts". New Zealand is just better than that.

The problem is that the effectiveness of alternative facts in swaying public opinion begins, in part, with a growing disregard for scientists and the information they provide.

In this case it was the EPA's job to determine if the TTR project could be undertaken while protecting the environment from pollution and maintaining its viability to meet the needs of future generations. Instead, a single individual in an influential, but relatively low-profile position was able to place industry over future generations, possibly ignoring scientific information that was inconvenient to that industry.

Many companies are emboldened when they see others getting away with things they perhaps should not. Over time, such decisions will become increasingly common and the public will get used to them.

Eventually experts may be personally undermined when they object, and before you know it you are in a sea of alternative facts and active disinformation. Make no mistake, the seeds are there.

New Zealand must take care to protect not only its environment, but also its scientists and the integrity of supposedly science-based decision-making processes. Failure to do so may allow the politicising of science to take hold here as well.

Meanwhile, the EPA approval of TTR's mining application is being challenged in the courts.