Phosphate mining remains a thorn in the flesh

Fishing companies want to prevent ‘flying ecologically blind’

09 July 2020 | Business

Windhoek • [email protected]

After environment minister Pohamba Shifeta withdrew a clearance certificate for planned phosphate extraction due to pressure by conservationists, the future of the controversial project has now become a legal dispute in the High Court.

An application by the Confederation of Namibian Fisheries Associations was before Judge Harald Geier yesterday to seek a general ban against marine phosphate extraction off the Namibian coast.

At the hearing, the question was raised as to whether a prospecting license received by Namibian Marine Phosphate (NMP) on 26 July 2011 was still valid.

According to the plaintiff, this licence – based on which NMP is seeking approval for the planned phosphate mining – already expired on 5 February 2013 because the respondents had failed to prepare an environmental impact study for the planned phosphate mining within six months.

They say, regardless of the required clearance certificate, NMP has forfeited the authority to mine the mineral, which is mainly used as fertilizer, in an area of around 2 233km² from the sea floor in an area about 60km off the coast, around 120km southwest of Walvis Bay.

Fishing sector protests

The fishing sector opposes the project on the grounds that a suction dredger is used to extract phosphate from a depth of between 180 and 300 meters, and that roughly 5.5 million tons of marine sediment is transported to the surface each year.

During the planned duration of the project, large amounts of sediment would be dredged from the sea floor in an area of around 60km², thereby driving fish out of the area.

The plaintiffs also argue that the release of particulate matter and minerals could have previously unknown consequences for plankton and other organisms in the ocean, which depend on seabed nutrients and serve as food source for fish.

Should these organisms disappear, fish would be deprived of their food source, which could lead to a disturbance of the ecological balance and could trigger a marine chain reaction with unpredictable consequences.

The applicants also claim that the area identified by NMP serves as spawning grounds for many commercial fish species and a drastic decrease in these species could be expected there. This would lead to a loss of biodiversity and a decrease in stocks, resulting in a drastic impact on the Namibian fishing industry, which not only creates thousands of jobs, but also makes a significant contribution to the gross domestic product.

Environmental concerns ‘unfounded’

In reaction, NMP denies that the planned phosphate mining could lead to a “noticeable impairment” in marine ecology, disturbing the natural balance in the ocean, or cause irreparable damage to the fauna occurring there, describing various reports as “rumors, speculations, guesswork and conjecture”.

At the same time, the company emphasizes that it has carried out intensive research and issued various reports that phosphate mining is far less environmentally harmful than marine diamond mining off the coast.

Furthermore, NMP says that the planned extraction area is only 0.0003% of the total territory of Namibia and is not part of a commercially used fishing area. Apart from the fact that the phosphate deposits are “extremely localized”, the extraction would take place at a depth of around 200m, where no fishing is usually done.

NMP also cited a study that only the Atlantic anglefish (1% of the total stock) and hake (0.05% of total stock) could suffer from possible phosphate degradation.

Judge Geier reserved judgment at the end of the hearing on 7 July.

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