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The supervisor of the world’s seabeds has accused a company in line to become the first to start harvesting battery metals from the ocean floor of failing to follow its own risk management rules after it caused a slurry spill in the Pacific.
Nauru Ocean Resources, a subsidiary of Canada-based The Metals Company (TMC), spilt up to 72,000 litres of water with seabed sediment and metallic fragments in October while collecting nodules containing nickel, manganese, copper and cobalt.
An investigation by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was signed off for publication in May and whose findings have not been previously reported, concluded the spill did not breach the regulator’s rules or cause serious environmental harm.
However, the investigation concluded that the company’s handling of the incident showed “insufficient risk awareness” and failure to follow its own risk management procedures.
TMC could not accurately estimate how much water was spilt, did not sample the water quality following the spill, did not take photos of the water “plume” dispersing in real time, and took 16 days to notify the regulator, it said. A scientist consulted by the ISA recommended checking for damage to marine life up to 40km away.
The spill happened during a pilot exercise intended to test TMC’s deep sea mining technology on a scale small enough that it could not cause serious damage.
Scientists and activists have warned that mining could cause irreversible damage to ecosystems thousands of metres under water. Duncan Currie, a lawyer at the non-profit Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, said the judgment of the UN-backed International Seabed Authority was not harsh enough.
“If [the ISA] does not consider a spill such as this to be a problem, this raises real concerns about their ability to regulate a full-blow mining operation,” he said.
The accident showed deep-sea mining technology was “still vulnerable”, said Andrea Koschinsky, a professor at Germany’s Constructor University consulted on the spill by the ISA.
“If this happened on a larger scale with industrial mining it would become a problem,” she said, as such a spill could increase the concentration of metal in the water and the dispersed sediment could impede photosynthesis in the top layer of the ocean.
The head of the ISA compliance unit responsible for the investigation, Øystein Bruncell Larsen, joined Norwegian deep-sea mining contractor Loke Marine Minerals as chief operations officer a month after the report’s publication online. Larsen declined to comment.
The ISA said its staff were bound by UN policies and rules and upheld the “highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity”.
They added: “From the findings of the investigation report and the peer review provided by five external international scientists, it was concluded that, apart from the late reporting of the NORI overflow, no non-compliance issue was identified.”
The delegates gathered at the ISA’s headquarters in Jamaica agreed in talks which ended on Friday that rules for the industry are unlikely to be finalised until 2025. But China repeatedly vetoed a proposal by countries including France and Chile to debate this year whether to pause deep-sea mining altogether. However, China conceded that the debate could take place in 2024.
Hervé Berville, France’s secretary of state for the sea, told the Financial Times that opposition to the debate taking place had represented “an important challenge for French diplomacy”. He added: “An energy transition that came at the cost of biodiversity would be smoke and mirrors, an illusion.”
Berville called for a regular five-year review of the ISA’s functioning, a legal obligation which is currently overdue, to be carried out.
TMC said in a statement that the trials proceeded “as planned with any design flaws identified and corrected immediately”.