“A Project of this Magnitude has Never Been Undertaken on Earth.” A Gigantic Ocean Mine Threatens Baja California.

by Dawn Pier

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Image Courtesy: Dr. Urmas Kaldveer

A massive suffocating plume of heavy metal-laden sediment snakes its way through the ocean from a boat as it dumps the byproduct of dredging seven meters deep to extract the phosphate it contains to produce fertilizer. The noise from pounding diesel engines and clanging of the dredging arm sends shock waves miles through the water. Once the project begins, sometime in 2015, it will mine enough sand to fill 100 of the largest freighters in the world. It will continue for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for the next 50 years. And yet, this causes no impact to the local marine environment at all, in fact there may even be some benefits.

Location map Don Diego project

Mining Area. Image Courtesy: WildCoast/CostaSalvaje

It’s hard to imagine a reasonable person believing that such an industrially intense process could be benign to the ocean environment, but this notion is exactly what Exploraciones Oceanicas, a Mexican mining company, subsidiary of the US-based multi-national Odyssey Marine Exploration, are trying to sell to the people of Baja California Sur and SEMARNAT, the Mexican federal environmental authority responsible for granting project approval.

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Enough Phosphate Sand Would be Mined to Fill Roughly 100 of These Massive Ore Ships.

If given the green light by authorities, Oceanicas’ submarine mining project, dubbed “Don Diego,” will commence in 2015 off the shores of the fishing village of San Juanico – better known in the surfing community as Scorpion Bay. It intends to remove over 350 million tons of phosphatic sands from a vast area comprising over 225,000 acres of seafloor in Ulloa Bay, just off the coast of Baja Sur. Its location near Scorpion and Magdalena Bays means that environmental impacts would directly affect local fisheries (fish, lobster, abalone, and clam), and the migration routes of the Gray and Humpback Whales. Furthermore, four species of endangered sea turtle make this highly productive area their home. Clearly the entire community of sediment-dwelling organisms including bottom-feeding fish, shrimp and other invertebrates, tube worms, algae, and bacteria could be irreversibly disrupted. Noise pollution will impact dolphins and whales, not the least of which are the Grays that make Magdalena Bay their calving and nursing grounds in winter.

Offshore phosphate mining is a potentially deadly process posing great risk to any ecosystem. Beyond the damage caused by the extraction process, phosphate rock itself contains an array of various heavy metals and even potentially radioactive elements that can be incredibly harmful and leach into the water and sea life. These include cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury, thorium, and uranium. Phosphate nutrients are the stuff that cause huge, deadly red tides and “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, the result of which is widespread fish kills.

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A Nutrient-Induced Fish Kill. Image: Save the Waves. 

Monica Franco Ortiz, the Magdalena Bay program coordinator for WildCoast (CostaSalvaje), offers the following insight into the project.

“A project of this magnitude has never been undertaken in the world before. The project’s total surface area is 91,267 hectares (225,525, acres) and is only 100 km North of Magdalena Bay and only 12 miles from the nearest point on the coast.”

Mine versus Fishing

“Because of the duration and area the project covers, we are concerned that they will be impacting dolphins, Gray and Humpback whales, and sea turtles. We believe that along with the heavy sedimentation to the water column, that the noise of the engines will disturb marine mammals.”

“There is also a serious concern about affects to the local fisheries, [which along with eco-tourism like whale-watching] is the main commercial activity in the region. The main concern of local fisherman is that it is impossible to assess the impact of a project of 50 years’ duration.”

Fisherman

Image Courtesy: WildCoast/CostaSalvaje

On November 5th, a public meeting was held in Cuidad Constitucion. 350 people were registered in attendance, but many more were outside protesting the project. Sixty questions were asked by those in attendance with fishermen in particular attempting to assess the impacts to the fishery. The scientists working for Oceanicas were both dismissive and overly technical in their answers. They were unable to address the fishermen’s concerns.

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Despite Being Hastily Called, Over 350 Concerned Residents Showed up for an Environmental Meeting. Image Courtesy: WildCoast/CostaSalvaje

“It’s very important that the public realize that all the studies that the company conducted as part of the environmental impact assessment were biased,” says Franco. “The monitoring was done at times during the year when productivity is low, when the whales are not present, and they did the monitoring for very short periods of time so that total fish abundance and diversity was low. They did it to make the public believe that they are going to conduct the project in a “marine desert.” That’s a lie.”

Grey Whale Watching

Image Courtesy: WildCoast/CostaSalvaje

Ms. Franco continues, “People need to continue to voice their opposition during this waiting period. Here in Baja California Sur, there are 12,000 people who are dependent on local fisheries and have been relying on fishing as their primary source of income for the past 50 years. This project will generate 80 jobs at most, many of them highly technical. The fishermen and their families need international pressure to tell SEMARNAT that this project must not be approved.“

Current status of the project: “We believe that because of the complexity of the project, SEMARNAT will ask the mine developers for “additional information” as part of the evaluation of the Environmental Impact Assessment,” says Monica Franco Ortiz. “So we do not know when SEMARNAT will make their decision.”

A complicating factor is that Mexico’s National Institute for Fisheries (INAPESCA) submitted  a favorable technical opinion to SEMARNAT regarding the viability of the project  even though the Northwestern scientific research institute, CIBNOR, published a five-page document detailing the great number of errors and omissions in the Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by Oceanicas. Franco continues, “We believe that INAPESCA is trying to influence the approval of the project. However SEMARNAT must be very careful because the project does not have the support of the municipal or state governments. But there is a lot of money at stake.”

Over the past year, the Don Diego debate has also taken a decidedly more serious and strange tone with the emergence of activist investor Ryan J. Morris, who has posted withering reports on Odyssey and its Oceanicas projects, accusing Oceanicas backers, of, among other things, taking out a paid advertisement in the newspaper Sudocaliforniano that was disguised as an actual newspaper story. The article accused project opponents, including the area’s Puerto Chale fishing cooperative, of criminal conspiracy in their opposition to the project.

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The Article in Sudocaliforniano

How to Make a Difference. 

Write to SEMARNAT directly using the contact window on their website. It’s always best to use your own words, but feel free to use the letter prepared in the Save the Waves Petition below.

You can also sign Save the Waves’ petition demanding the government of Mexico say NO to deep sea phosphate mining near Scorpion Bay.

Finally, the local NGOs involved in opposing the project need your financial support. These include WildCoast, Centro Mexicano Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA), Grupo Tortuguero, Vigilantes de Bahia Magdelena (a partner in Waterkeepers Alliance), and Media Ambiente Sociedad. Be sure to tell them to apply your donation to their efforts to stop the Don Diego Submarine Mining Project.

Here’s an article from Discover Magazine on phosphate mining.

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