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History’s Largest Mining Operation Is About to Begin. It’s Underwater—and the Consequences are Unimaginable.

History’s Largest Mining Operation Is About to Begin. It’s Underwater—and the Consequences are Unimaginable.

The Atlantic

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2020 ISSUE

 

By Wil S. Hylton

 

Mining robots, such as these, will help unlock a subsea gold rush. Source: World Economic Forum

Unless you are given to chronic anxiety or suffer from nihilistic despair, you probably haven’t spent much time contemplating the bottom of the ocean. Many people imagine the seabed to be a vast expanse of sand, but it’s a jagged and dynamic landscape with as much variation as any place onshore. Mountains surge from underwater plains, canyons slice miles deep, hot springs billow through fissures in rock, and streams of heavy brine ooze down hillsides, pooling into undersea lakes.

These peaks and valleys are laced with most of the same minerals found on land. Scientists have documented their deposits since at least 1868, when a dredging ship pulled a chunk of iron ore from the seabed north of Russia. Five years later, another ship found similar nuggets at the bottom of the Atlantic, and two years after that, it discovered a field of the same objects in the Pacific. For more than a century, oceanographers continued to identify new minerals on the seafloor—copper, nickel, silver, platinum, gold, and even gemstones—while mining companies searched for a practical way to dig them up.

Today, many of the largest mineral corporations in the world have launched underwater mining programs. On the west coast of Africa, the De Beers Group is using a fleet of specialized ships to drag machinery across the seabed in search of diamonds. In 2018, those ships extracted 1.4 million carats from the coastal waters of Namibia; in 2019, De Beers commissioned a new ship that will scrape the bottom twice as quickly as any other vessel. Another company, Nautilus Minerals, is working in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea to shatter a field of underwater hot springs lined with precious metals, while Japan and South Korea have embarked on national projects to exploit their own offshore deposits. But the biggest prize for mining companies will be access to international waters, which cover more than half of the global seafloor and contain more valuable minerals than all the continents combined.

Regulations for ocean mining have never been formally established. The United Nations has given that task to an obscure organization known as the International Seabed Authority, which is housed in a pair of drab gray office buildings at the edge of Kingston Harbour, in Jamaica. Unlike most UN bodies, the ISA receives little oversight. It is classified as “autonomous” and falls under the direction of its own secretary general, who convenes his own general assembly once a year, at the ISA headquarters. For about a week, delegates from 168 member states pour into Kingston from around the world, gathering at a broad semicircle of desks in the auditorium of the Jamaica Conference Centre. Their assignment is not to prevent mining on the seafloor but to mitigate its damage—selecting locations where extraction will be permitted, issuing licenses to mining companies, and drafting the technical and environmental standards of an underwater Mining Code.

Writing the code has been difficult. ISA members have struggled to agree on a regulatory framework. While they debate the minutiae of waste disposal and ecological preservation, the ISA has granted “exploratory” permits around the world. Some 30 mineral contractors already hold licenses to work in sweeping regions of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. One site, about 2,300 miles east of Florida, contains the largest system of underwater hot springs ever discovered, a ghostly landscape of towering white spires that scientists call the “Lost City.” Another extends across 4,500 miles of the Pacific, or roughly a fifth of the circumference of the planet. The companies with permits to explore these regions have raised breathtaking sums of venture capital. They have designed and built experimental vehicles, lowered them to the bottom, and begun testing methods of dredging and extraction while they wait for the ISA to complete the Mining Code and open the floodgates to commercial extraction.

At full capacity, these companies expect to dredge thousands of square miles a year. Their collection vehicles will creep across the bottom in systematic rows, scraping through the top five inches of the ocean floor. Ships above will draw thousands of pounds of sediment through a hose to the surface, remove the metallic objects, known as polymetallic nodules, and then flush the rest back into the water. Some of that slurry will contain toxins such as mercury and lead, which could poison the surrounding ocean for hundreds of miles. The rest will drift in the current until it settles in nearby ecosystems. An early study by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences predicted that each mining ship will release about 2 million cubic feet of discharge every day, enough to fill a freight train that is 16 miles long. The authors called this “a conservative estimate,” since other projections had been three times as high. By any measure, they concluded, “a very large area will be blanketed by sediment to such an extent that many animals will not be able to cope with the impact and whole communities will be severely affected by the loss of individuals and species.”

At the ISA meeting in 2019, delegates gathered to review a draft of the code. Officials hoped the document would be ratified for implementation in 2020. I flew down to observe the proceedings on a balmy morning and found the conference center teeming with delegates. A staff member ushered me through a maze of corridors to meet the secretary general, Michael Lodge, a lean British man in his 50s with cropped hair and a genial smile. He waved me toward a pair of armchairs beside a bank of windows overlooking the harbor, and we sat down to discuss the Mining Code, what it will permit and prohibit, and why the United Nations is preparing to mobilize the largest mining operation in the history of the world.

Until recently, marine biologists paid little attention to the deep sea. They believed its craggy knolls and bluffs were essentially barren. The traditional model of life on Earth relies on photosynthesis: plants on land and in shallow water harness sunlight to grow biomass, which is devoured by creatures small and large, up the food chain to Sunday dinner. By this account, every animal on the planet would depend on plants to capture solar energy. Since plants disappear a few hundred feet below sea level, and everything goes dark a little farther down, there was no reason to expect a thriving ecosystem in the deep. Maybe a light snow of organic debris would trickle from the surface, but it would be enough to sustain only a few wayward aquatic drifters.

That theory capsized in 1977, when a pair of oceanographers began poking around the Pacific in a submersible vehicle. While exploring a range of underwater mountains near the Galápagos Islands, they spotted a hydrothermal vent about 8,000 feet deep. No one had ever seen an underwater hot spring before, though geologists suspected they might exist. As the oceanographers drew close to the vent, they made an even more startling discovery: A large congregation of animals was camped around the vent opening. These were not the feeble scavengers that one expected so far down. They were giant clams, purple octopuses, white crabs, and 10-foot tube worms, whose food chain began not with plants but with organic chemicals floating in the warm vent water.

For biologists, this was more than curious. It shook the foundation of their field. If a complex ecosystem could emerge in a landscape devoid of plants, evolution must be more than a heliological affair. Life could appear in perfect darkness, in blistering heat and a broth of noxious compounds—an environment that would extinguish every known creature on Earth. “That was the discovery event,” an evolutionary biologist named Timothy Shank told me. “It changed our view about the boundaries of life. Now we know that the methane lakes on one of Jupiter’s moons are probably laden with species, and there is no doubt life on other planetary bodies.”

Shank was 12 years old that winter, a bookish kid in North Carolina. The early romance of the space age was already beginning to fade, but the discovery of life near hydrothermal vents would inspire a blossoming of oceanography that captured his imagination. As he completed a degree in marine biology, then a doctorate in ecology and evolution, he consumed reports from scientists around the world who found new vents brimming with unknown species. They appeared far below the surface—the deepest known vent is about three miles down—while another geologic feature, known as a “cold seep,” gives rise to life in chemical pools even deeper on the seafloor. No one knew how far down the vents and seeps might be found, but Shank decided to focus his research on the deepest waters of the Earth.

Scientists divide the ocean into five layers of depth. Closest to the surface is the “sunlight zone,” where plants thrive; then comes the “twilight zone,” where darkness falls; next is the “midnight zone,” where some creatures generate their own light; and then there’s a frozen flatland known simply as “the abyss.” Oceanographers have visited these layers in submersible vehicles for half a century, but the final layer is difficult to reach. It is known as the “hadal zone,” in reference to Hades, the ancient Greek god of the underworld, and it includes any water that is at least 6,000 meters below the surface—or, in a more Vernian formulation, that is 20,000 feet under the sea. Because the hadal zone is so deep, it is usually associated with ocean trenches, but several deepwater plains have sections that cross into hadal depth.

Deepwater plains are also home to the polymetallic nodules that explorers first discovered a century and a half ago. Mineral companies believe that nodules will be easier to mine than other seabed deposits. To remove the metal from a hydrothermal vent or an underwater mountain, they will have to shatter rock in a manner similar to land-based extraction. Nodules are isolated chunks of rocks on the seabed that typically range from the size of a golf ball to that of a grapefruit, so they can be lifted from the sediment with relative ease. Nodules also contain a distinct combination of minerals. While vents and ridges are flecked with precious metal, such as silver and gold, the primary metals in nodules are copper, manganese, nickel, and cobalt—crucial materials in modern batteries. As iPhones and laptops and electric vehicles spike demand for those metals, many people believe that nodules are the best way to migrate from fossil fuels to battery power.

The ISA has issued more mining licenses for nodules than for any other seabed deposit. Most of these licenses authorize contractors to exploit a single deepwater plain. Known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, or CCZ, it extends across 1.7 million square miles between Hawaii and Mexico—wider than the continental United States. When the Mining Code is approved, more than a dozen companies will accelerate their explorations in the CCZ to industrial-scale extraction. Their ships and robots will use vacuum hoses to suck nodules and sediment from the seafloor, extracting the metal and dumping the rest into the water. How many ecosystems will be covered by that sediment is impossible to predict. Ocean currents fluctuate regularly in speed and direction, so identical plumes of slurry will travel different distances, in different directions, on different days. The impact of a sediment plume also depends on how it is released. Slurry that is dumped near the surface will drift farther than slurry pumped back to the bottom. The circulating draft of the Mining Code does not specify a depth of discharge. The ISA has adopted an estimate that sediment dumped near the surface will travel no more than 62 miles from the point of release, but many experts believe the slurry could travel farther. A recent survey of academic research compiled by Greenpeace concluded that mining waste “could travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers.”

Like many deepwater plains, the CCZ has sections that lie at hadal depth. Its eastern boundary is marked by a hadal trench. No one knows whether mining sediment will drift into the hadal zone. As the director of a hadal-research program at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts, Timothy Shank has been studying the deep sea for almost 30 years. In 2014, he led an international mission to complete the first systematic study of the hadal ecosystem—but even Shank has no idea how mining could affect the hadal zone, because he still has no idea what it contains. If you want a sense of how little we know about the deep ocean, how difficult it is to study, and what’s at stake when industry leaps before science, Shank’s research is a good place to start.

Ifirst met shank about seven years ago, when he was organizing the international mission to survey the hadal zone. He had put together a three-year plan to visit every ocean trench: sending a robotic vehicle to explore their features, record every contour of topography, and collect specimens from each. The idea was either dazzling or delusional; I wasn’t sure which. Scientists have enough trouble measuring the seabed in shallower waters. They have used ropes and chains and acoustic instruments to record depth for more than a century, yet 85 percent of the global seabed remains unmapped—and the hadal is far more difficult to map than other regions, since it’s nearly impossible to see.

If it strikes you as peculiar that modern vehicles cannot penetrate the deepest ocean, take a moment to imagine what it means to navigate six or seven miles below the surface. Every 33 feet of depth exerts as much pressure as the atmosphere of the Earth, so when you are just 66 feet down, you are under three times as much pressure as a person on land, and when you are 300 feet down, you’re subjected to 10 atmospheres of pressure. Tube worms living beside hydrothermal vents near the Galápagos are compressed by about 250 atmospheres, and mining vehicles in the CCZ have to endure twice as much—but they are still just half as far down as the deepest trenches.

Building a vehicle to function at 36,000 feet, under 2 million pounds of pressure per square foot, is a task of interstellar-type engineering. It’s a good deal more rigorous than, say, bolting together a rover to skitter across Mars. Picture the schematic of an iPhone case that can be smashed with a sledgehammer more or less constantly, from every angle at once, without a trace of damage, and you’re in the ballpark—or just consider the fact that more people have walked on the moon than have reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth.

The first two people descended in 1960, using a contraption owned by the U.S. Navy. It seized and shuddered on the descent. Its window cracked as the pressure mounted, and it landed with so much force that it kicked up a cloud of silt that obscured the view for the entire 20 minutes the pair remained on the bottom. Half a century passed before the film director James Cameron repeated their journey, in 2012. Unlike the swaggering billionaire Richard Branson, who was planning to dive the Mariana in a cartoonish vehicle shaped like a fighter jet, Cameron is well versed in ocean science and engineering. He was closely involved in the design of his submarine, and sacrificed stylistic flourishes for genuine innovations, including a new type of foam that maintains buoyancy at full ocean depth. Even so, his vessel lurched and bucked on the way down. He finally managed to land, and spent a couple of hours collecting sediment samples before he noticed that hydraulic fluid was leaking onto the window. The vehicle’s mechanical arm began to fail, and all of the thrusters on its right side went out—so he returned to the surface early, canceled his plan for additional dives, and donated the broken sub to Woods Hole.

A 3-D model of the Mariana Trench
A 3-D model of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth. Most of what we know about its topography has been gathered by sonar. Only three crewed expeditions have reached the bottom. (Data Design Co)
The most recent descent of the Mariana Trench was completed last spring by a private-equity investor named Victor Vescovo, who spent $48 million on a submarine that was even more sophisticated than Cameron’s. Vescovo was on a personal quest to reach the bottom of the five deepest trenches in the world, a project he called “Five Deeps.” He was able to complete the project, making multiple dives of the Mariana—but if his achievement represents a leap forward in hadal exploration, it also serves as a reminder of how impenetrable the trenches remain: a region that can be visited only by the most committed multimillionaire, Hollywood celebrity, or special military program, and only in isolated dives to specific locations that reveal little about the rest of the hadal environment. That environment is composed of 33 trenches and 13 shallower formations called troughs. Its total geographic area is about two-thirds the size of Australia. It is the least examined ecosystem of its size on Earth.Without a vehicle to explore the hadal zone, scientists have been forced to use primitive methods. The most common technique has scarcely changed in more than a century: Expedition ships chug across hundreds of miles to reach a precise location, then lower a trap, wait a few hours, and reel it up to see what’s inside. The limitations of this approach are self-evident, if not comic. It’s like dangling a birdcage out the door of an airplane crossing Africa at 36,000 feet, and then trying to divine, from the mangled bodies of insects, what sort of animals roam the savanna.All of which is to say that Shank’s plan to explore every trench in the world was somewhere between audacious and absurd, but he had assembled a team of the world’s leading experts, secured ship time for extensive missions, and spent 10 years supervising the design of the most advanced robotic vehicle ever developed for deepwater navigation. Called Nereus, after a mythological sea god, it could dive alone—charting a course amid rocky cliffs, measuring their contours with a doppler scanner, recording video with high-definition cameras, and collecting samples—or it could be linked to the deck of a ship with fiber-optic cable, allowing Shank to monitor its movement on a computer in the ship’s control room, boosting the thrusters to steer this way and that, piercing the darkness with its headlamps, and maneuvering a mechanical claw to gather samples in the deep.

I reached out to Shank in 2013, a few months before the expedition began. I wanted to write about the project, and he agreed to let me join him on a later leg. When his ship departed, in the spring of 2014, I followed online as it pursued a course to the Kermadec Trench, in the Pacific, and Shank began sending Nereus on a series of dives. On the first, it descended to 6,000 meters, a modest target on the boundary of the hadal zone. On the second, Shank pushed it to 7,000 meters; on the third to 8,000; and on the fourth to 9,000. He knew that diving to 10,000 meters would be a crucial threshold. It is the last full kilometer of depth on Earth: No trench is believed to be deeper than 11,000 meters. To commemorate this final increment and the successful beginning of his project, he attached a pair of silver bracelets to the frame of Nereus, planning to give them to his daughters when he returned home. Then he dropped the robot in the water and retreated to the control room to monitor its movements.

On-screen, blue water gave way to darkness as Nereus descended, its headlamps illuminating specks of debris suspended in the water. It was 10 meters shy of the 10,000-meter mark when suddenly the screen went dark. There was an audible gasp in the control room, but no one panicked. Losing the video feed on a dive was relatively common. Maybe the fiber-optic tether had snapped, or the software had hit a glitch. Whatever it was, Nereus had been programmed to respond with emergency measures. It could back out of a jam, shed expendable weight, guide itself to the surface, and send a homing beacon to help Shank’s team retrieve it.

As the minutes ticked by, Shank waited for those measures to activate, but none did. “There’s no sound, no implosion, no chime,” he told me afterward. “Just … black.” He paced the deck through the night, staring across the Stygian void for signs of Nereus. The following day he finally saw debris surface, and as he watched it rise, he felt his project sinking. Ten years of planning, a $14 million robot, and an international team of experts—it had all collapsed under the crushing pressure of hadal depths.

“I’m not over it yet,” he told me two years later. We were standing on the deck of another ship, 100 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, where Shank was preparing to launch a new robot. The vehicle was no replacement for Nereus. It was a rectilinear hunk of metal and plastic, about five feet high, three feet wide, and nine feet long. Red on top, with a silvery bottom and three fans mounted at the rear, it could have been mistaken for a child’s backyard spaceship. Shank had no illusion that it was capable of hadal exploration. Since the loss of Nereus, there was no vehicle on Earth that could navigate the deepest trenches—Cameron’s was no longer in service, Branson’s didn’t work, and Vescovo’s hadn’t yet been built.

Shank’s new robot did have a few impressive features. Its navigational system was even more advanced than the one in Nereus, and he hoped it would be able to maneuver in a trenchlike environment with even greater precision—but its body was not designed to withstand hadal pressure. In fact, it had never descended more than a few dozen feet below the surface, and Shank knew that it would take years to build something that could survive at the bottom of a trench. What had seemed, just two years earlier, like the beginning of a new era in hadal science was developing a quixotic aspect, and, at 50, Shank could not help wondering if it was madness to spend another decade of his life on a dream that seemed to be drifting further from his reach. But he was driven by a lifelong intuition that he still couldn’t shake. Shank believes that access to the trenches will reveal one of the greatest discoveries in history: a secret ecosystem bursting with creatures that have been cloistered for eternity in the deep.

“I would be shocked if there aren’t vents and seeps in the trenches,” he told me as we bobbed on the water that day in 2016. “They’ll be there, and they will be teeming with life. I think we’ll be looking at hundreds or thousands of species we haven’t seen before, and some of them are going to be huge.” He pictured the hadal as an alien world that followed its own evolutionary course, the unimaginable pressure creating a menagerie of inconceivable beasts. “My time is running out to find them,” he said. “Maybe my legacy will be to push things forward so that somebody else can. We have a third of our ocean that we still can’t explore. It’s embarrassing. It’s pathetic.”

While scientists struggle to reach the deep ocean, human impact has already gotten there. Most of us are familiar with the menu of damages to coastal water: overfishing, oil spills, and pollution, to name a few. What can be lost in the discussion of these issues is how they reverberate far beneath.

Take fishing. The relentless pursuit of cod in the early 20th century decimated its population from Newfoundland to New England, sending hungry shoppers in search of other options. As shallow-water fish such as haddock, grouper, and sturgeon joined the cod’s decline, commercial fleets around the world pushed into deeper water. Until the 1970s, the slimehead fish lived in relative obscurity, patrolling the slopes of underwater mountains in water up to 6,000 feet deep. Then a consortium of fishermen pushed the Food and Drug Administration to change its name, and the craze for “orange roughy” began—only to fade again in the early 2000s, when the fish was on a path toward extinction itself.

Environmental damage from oil production is also migrating into deeper water. Disturbing photographs of oil-drenched beaches have captured public attention since at least 1989, when the Exxon Valdez tanker crashed into a reef and leaked 11 million gallons into an Alaskan sound. It would remain the largest spill in U.S. water until 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon explosion spewed 210 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico. But a recent study revealed that the release of chemicals to disperse the spill was twice as toxic as the oil to animals living 3,000 feet below the surface.

Maybe the greatest alarm in recent years has followed the discovery of plastic floating in the ocean. Scientists estimate that 17 billion pounds of polymer are flushed into the ocean each year, and substantially more of it collects on the bottom than on the surface. Just as a bottle that falls from a picnic table will roll downhill to a gulch, trash on the seafloor gradually makes its way toward deepwater plains and hadal trenches. After his expedition to the trenches, Victor Vescovo returned with the news that garbage had beaten him there. He found a plastic bag at the bottom of one trench, a beverage can in another, and when he reached the deepest point in the Mariana, he watched an object with a large S on the side float past his window. Trash of all sorts is collecting in the hadal—Spam tins, Budweiser cans, rubber gloves, even a mannequin head.

Scientists are just beginning to understand the impact of trash on aquatic life. Fish and seabirds that mistake grocery bags for prey will glut their stomachs with debris that their digestive system can’t expel. When a young whale drifted ashore and died in the Philippines in 2019, an autopsy revealed that its belly was packed with 88 pounds of plastic bags, nylon rope, and netting. Two weeks later, another whale beached in Sardinia, its stomach crammed with 48 pounds of plastic dishes and tubing. Certain types of coral like to eat plastic more than food. They will gorge themselves like a kid on Twinkies instead of eating what they need to survive. Microbes that flourish on plastic have ballooned in number, replacing other species as their population explodes in a polymer ocean.

If it seems trivial to worry about the population statistics of bacteria in the ocean, you may be interested to know that ocean microbes are essential to human and planetary health. About a third of the carbon dioxide generated on land is absorbed by underwater organisms, including one species that was just discovered in the CCZ in 2018. The researchers who found that bacterium have no idea how it removes carbon from the environment, but their findings show that it may account for up to 10 percent of the volume that is sequestered by oceans every year.

Many of the things we do know about ocean microbes, we know thanks to Craig Venter, the genetic scientist most famous for starting a small company in the 1990s to compete with the Human Genome Project. The two-year race between his company and the international collaboration generated endless headlines and culminated in a joint announcement at the White House to declare a tie. But Venter’s interest wasn’t limited to human DNA. He wanted to learn the language of genetics in order to create synthetic microbes with practical features. After his work on the human genome, he spent two years sailing around the world, lowering bottles into the ocean to collect bacteria and viruses from the water. By the time he returned, he had discovered hundreds of thousands of new species, and his lab in Maryland proceeded to sequence their DNA—identifying more than 60 million unique genes, which is about 2,500 times the number in humans. Then he and his team began to scour those genes for properties they could use to make custom bugs.

Venter now lives in a hypermodern house on a bluff in Southern California. Chatting one evening on the sofa beside the door to his walk-in humidor and wine cellar, he described how saltwater microbes could help solve the most urgent problems of modern life. One of the bacteria he pulled from the ocean consumes carbon and excretes methane. Venter would like to integrate its genes into organisms designed to live in smokestacks and recycle emissions. “They could scrub the plant’s CO2 and convert it to methane that can be burned as fuel in the same plant,” he said.

Venter was also studying bacteria that could be useful in medicine. Microbes produce a variety of antibiotic compounds, which they deploy as weapons against their rivals. Many of those compounds can also be used to kill the pathogens that infect humans. Nearly all of the antibiotic drugs on the market were initially derived from microorganisms, but they are losing efficacy as pathogens evolve to resist them. “We have new drugs in development,” Matt McCarthy, an infectious-disease specialist at Weill Cornell Medical College, told me, “but most of them are slight variations on the ones we already had. The problem with that is, they’re easy for bacteria to resist, because they’re similar to something bacteria have developed resistance to in the past. What we need is an arsenal of new compounds.”

Venter pointed out that ocean microbes produce radically different compounds from those on land. “There are more than a million microbes per milliliter of seawater,” he said, “so the chance of finding new antibiotics in the marine environment is high.” McCarthy agreed. “The next great drug may be hidden somewhere deep in the water,” he said. “We need to get to the deep-sea organisms, because they’re making compounds that we’ve never seen before. We may find drugs that could be used to treat gout, or rheumatoid arthritis, or all kinds of other conditions.”

Marine biologists have never conducted a comprehensive survey of microbes in the hadal trenches. The conventional tools of water sampling cannot function at extreme depth, and engineers are just beginning to develop tools that can. Microbial studies of the deepwater plains are slightly further along—and scientists have recently discovered that the CCZ is unusually flush with life. “It’s one of the most biodiverse areas that we’ve ever sampled on the abyssal plains,” a University of Hawaii oceanographer named Jeff Drazen told me. Most of those microbes, he said, live on the very same nodules that miners are planning to extract. “When you lift them off the seafloor, you’re removing a habitat that took 10 million years to grow.” Whether or not those microbes can be found in other parts of the ocean is unknown. “A lot of the less mobile organisms,” Drazen said, “may not be anywhere else.”

Drazen is an academic ecologist; Venter is not. Venter has been accused of trying to privatize the human genome, and many of his critics believe his effort to create new organisms is akin to playing God. He clearly doesn’t have an aversion to profit-driven science, and he’s not afraid to mess with nature—yet when I asked him about the prospect of mining in deep water, he flared with alarm. “We should be very careful about mining in the ocean,” he said. “These companies should be doing rigorous microbial surveys before they do anything else. We only know a fraction of the microbes down there, and it’s a terrible idea to screw with them before we know what they are and what they do.”

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone is a deepwater plain wider than the continental United States. When the Mining Code is approved, more than a dozen contractors could begin commercial extraction there. (La Tigre)

Mining executives insist that their work in the ocean is misunderstood. Some adopt a swaggering bravado and portray the industry as a romantic frontier adventure. As the manager of exploration at Nautilus Minerals, John Parianos, told me recently, “This is about every man and his dog filled with the excitement of the moon landing. It’s like Scott going to the South Pole, or the British expeditions who got entombed by ice.”

Nautilus occupies a curious place in the mining industry. It is one of the oldest companies at work on the seafloor, but also the most precarious. Although it has a permit from the government of Papua New Guinea to extract metal from offshore vents, many people on the nearby island of New Ireland oppose the project, which will destroy part of their marine habitat. Local and international activists have whipped up negative publicity, driving investors away and sending the company into financial ruin. Nautilus stock once traded for $4.45. It is now less than a penny per share.Parianos acknowledged that Nautilus was in crisis, but he dismissed the criticism as naive. Seabed minerals are no different from any other natural resource, he said, and the use of natural resources is fundamental to human progress. “Look around you: Everything that’s not grown is mined,” he told me. “That’s why they called it the Stone Age—because it’s when they started mining! And mining is what made our lives better than what they had before the Stone Age.” Parianos emphasized that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which created the International Seabed Authority, promised “to ensure effective protection for the marine environment” from the effects of mining. “It’s not like the Law of the Sea says: Go out and ravage the marine environment,” he said. “But it also doesn’t say that you can only explore the ocean for science, and not to make money.”The CEO of a company called DeepGreen spoke in loftier terms. DeepGreen is both a product of Nautilus Minerals and a reaction to it. The company was founded in 2011 by David Heydon, who had founded Nautilus a decade earlier, and its leadership is full of former Nautilus executives and investors. As a group, they have sought to position DeepGreen as a company whose primary interest in mining the ocean is saving the planet. They have produced a series of lavish brochures to explain the need for a new source of battery metals, and Gerard Barron, the CEO, speaks with animated fervor about the virtues of nodule extraction.

His case for seabed mining is straightforward. Barron believes that the world will not survive if we continue burning fossil fuels, and the transition to other forms of power will require a massive increase in battery production. He points to electric cars: the batteries for a single vehicle require 187 pounds of copper, 123 pounds of nickel, and 15 pounds each of manganese and cobalt. On a planet with 1 billion cars, the conversion to electric vehicles would require several times more metal than all existing land-based supplies—and harvesting that metal from existing sources already takes a human toll. Most of the world’s cobalt, for example, is mined in the southeastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where tens of thousands of young children work in labor camps, inhaling clouds of toxic dust during shifts up to 24 hours long. Terrestrial mines for nickel and copper have their own litany of environmental harms. Because the ISA is required to allocate some of the profits from seabed mining to developing countries, the industry will provide nations that rely on conventional mining with revenue that doesn’t inflict damage on their landscapes and people.

Whether DeepGreen represents a shift in the values of mining companies or merely a shift in marketing rhetoric is a valid question—but the company has done things that are difficult to dismiss. It has developed technology that returns sediment discharge to the seafloor with minimal disruption, and Barron is a regular presence at ISA meetings, where he advocates for regulations to mandate low-impact discharge. DeepGreen has also limited its operations to nodule mining, and Barron openly criticizes the effort by his friends at Nautilus to demolish a vent that is still partially active. “The guys at Nautilus, they’re doing their thing, but I don’t think it’s the right thing for the planet,” he told me. “We need to be doing things that have a low impact environmentally.”

By the time i sat down with Michael Lodge, the secretary general of the ISA, I had spent a lot of time thinking about the argument that executives like Barron are making. It seemed to me that seabed mining presents an epistemological problem. The harms of burning fossil fuels and the impact of land-based mining are beyond dispute, but the cost of plundering the ocean is impossible to know. What creatures are yet to be found on the seafloor? How many indispensable cures? Is there any way to calculate the value of a landscape we know virtually nothing about? The world is full of uncertain choices, of course, but the contrast between options is rarely so stark: the crisis of climate change and immiserated labor on the one hand, immeasurable risk and potential on the other.

I thought of the hadal zone. It may never be harmed by mining. Sediment from dredging on the abyssal plains could settle long before it reaches the edge of a trench—but the total obscurity of the hadal should remind us of how little we know. It extends from 20,000 feet below sea level to roughly 36,000 feet, leaving nearly half of the ocean’s depths beyond our reach. When I visited Timothy Shank at Woods Hole a few months ago, he showed me a prototype of his latest robot. He and his lead engineer, Casey Machado, had built it with foam donated by James Cameron and with support from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose engineers are hoping to send a vehicle to explore the aqueous moon of Jupiter. It was a tiny machine, known as Orpheus, that could steer through trenches, recording topography and taking samples, but little else. He would have no way to direct its movements or monitor its progress via a video feed. It occurred to me that if Shank had given up the dream of true exploration in the trenches, decades could pass before we know what the hadal zone contains.

Mining companies may promise to extract seabed metal with minimal damage to the surrounding environment, but to believe this requires faith. It collides with the force of human history, the law of unintended consequences, and the inevitability of mistakes. I wanted to understand from Michael Lodge how a UN agency had made the choice to accept that risk.

“Why is it necessary to mine the ocean?” I asked him.

He paused for a moment, furrowing his brow. “I don’t know why you use the word necessary,” he said. “Why is it ‘necessary’ to mine anywhere? You mine where you find metal.”

I reminded him that centuries of mining on land have exacted a devastating price: tropical islands denuded, mountaintops sheared off, groundwater contaminated, and species eradicated. Given the devastation of land-based mining, I asked, shouldn’t we hesitate to mine the sea?

“I don’t believe people should worry that much,” he said with a shrug. “There’s certainly an impact in the area that’s mined, because you are creating an environmental disturbance, but we can find ways to manage that.” I pointed out that the impact from sediment could travel far beyond the mining zone, and he responded, “Sure, that’s the other major environmental concern. There is a sediment plume, and we need to manage it. We need to understand how the plume operates, and there are experiments being done right now that will help us.” As he spoke, I realized that for Lodge, none of these questions warranted reflection—or anyway, he didn’t see reflection as part of his job. He was there to facilitate mining, not to question the wisdom of doing so.

We chatted for another 20 minutes, then I thanked him for his time and wandered back to the assembly room, where delegates were delivering canned speeches about marine conservation and the promise of battery technology. There was still some debate about certain details of the Mining Code—technical requirements, oversight procedures, the profit-sharing model—so the vote to ratify it would have to wait another year. I noticed a group of scientists watching from the back. They were members of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, which formed in 2013 to confront threats to the deepwater environment. One was Jeff Drazen. He’d flown in from Hawaii and looked tired. I sent him a text, and we stepped outside.

A few tables and chairs were scattered in the courtyard, and we sat down to talk. I asked how he felt about the delay of the Mining Code—delegates are planning to review it again this summer, and large-scale mining could begin after that.

Drazen rolled his eyes and sighed. “There’s a Belgian team in the CCZ doing a component test right now,” he said. “They’re going to drive a vehicle around on the seafloor and spew a bunch of mud up. So these things are already happening. We’re about to make one of the biggest transformations that humans have ever made to the surface of the planet. We’re going to strip-mine a massive habitat, and once it’s gone, it isn’t coming back.”

 

[Wil S. Hylton is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He has published cover stories for many outlets including The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Harper’s, Details, New York, and Outside.]

WATCH: Salmonopoly [Marine Harvest & WWF, Chile]

marine-harvest-john-fredriksen-wwf

A film by Wilfried Huismann and Arno Schumann.

“Long-term investment in sustainability and the environment is the only way forward. With this commitment Marine Harvest is showing how environmental sustainability is a precondition for economic sustainability, and that they take global leadership to minimise their impact on the environment.” — Nina Jensen, CEO of WWF Norway

The risks and catastrophic results of aquaculture. The dirty tricks of powerful billionaires like John Fredriksen, who controls one third of the global salmon production. The WWF who greenwashes the ecological devastation and horrific plunder.

Marine Harvest is the largest salmon company in the world. It is headed by John Fredriksen (Marine Harvest’s biggest shareholder), a billionaire who has developed salmon farms in Norway and Chile. But in Chile, with weaker environmental legislation, a fatal disease for salmon has developed. Working conditions are also catastrophic for employees and sometimes fatal for local divers. To improve its image, Marine Harvest negotiated a contract with WWF for $ 100,000 a year. [Le Festival international de films “Pêcheurs du monde”]

 

 
Further Reading:

WATCH: Salmon Confidential [Marine Harvest & WWF, British Columbia]

Blue-washing the Colonization and Militarization of Our Ocean

How U.S. Marine National Monuments protect environmentally harmful U.S. military bases throughout the Pacific and the world.

The Hawaii Independent

June 26, 2014

by Craig Santos Perez

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B-1 bombers on Diego Garcia

President Obama recently announced plans to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles. Despite the media framing this move as a victory for ocean conservation, the truth is that these monuments will further colonize, militarize and privatize the Pacific.

Many mistakenly refer to marine “monuments” as “sanctuaries” because they are both “marine protected areas.” However, an official sanctuary is designated by the Secretary of Commerce under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which requires “extensive public process, local community engagement, stakeholder involvement, and citizen participation, both prior to and following designation.”  On the other hand, the President unilaterally designates marine monuments through the Antiquities Act of 1906. No public process is required.

The first and largest Marine National Monument was established in 2006: The Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument (140,000 square miles). Three more marine monuments were established in 2009: The Marianas Trench Marine National Monument (95,000 square miles); The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (87,000 square miles); and The Rose Atoll Marine National Monument (13,000 square miles). The total “protected” area, with Obama’s expansion, would be more than a million square miles of “small islands, atolls, coral reefs, submerged lands, and deep blue waters.”

Why has this antiquited, unilateral process suddenly become so popular? Why are U.S. presidents from both sides of the political divide side-stepping Congressional approval and—more importantly—public participation and scrutiny?

It’s important to understand that establishing a marine national monument, reserve, or refuge places our coastal and open ocean waters under federal control. The marine monuments are administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (under the Department of Commerce) or by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (under the Department of the Interior). This ocean and submerged land grab by the federal government severely limits public access and trust. Additionally, these monuments violate the rights of indigenous peoples by separating us from our sacred spaces. Traditional fishing grounds or ritual spaces may no longer be accessible. If there are exceptions for indigenous rites, we will need to apply for a permit and receive federal approval.

How Do Marine Reserves Militarize the Ocean?

As I wrote about in a previous editorial, the U.S. military removed the original landowners of Litekyan (Ritidian), an area in northern Guam, under eminent domain in 1963, and the Navy used the area as a communications station during the Cold War. Thirty years later, 1,000 acres of the land was deemed “excess.” Instead of that land being returned to the families, it was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and designated a “National Wildlife Refuge.” Today, four thousand acres of Litekyan is now being considered for a live firing range complex.

You see, designating land and water as a monument, refuge, reserve, or even sanctuary keeps the land under federal control as opposed to public (and indigenous) trust. So if the military ever wants to use the land in the future, it can simply be converted (or re-converted in the case of Litekyan) from the Department of the Interior or Commerce to the Department of Defense. This is the “logic of military conservation.”

Many marine monuments house strategic military bases. For example, the marine monuments of the Pacific are home to U.S. bases on Guam, Tinian, Saipan, Rota, Farallon de Medinilla, Wake Island and Johnston Island, to name a few. The reason why military bases can be within marine monuments is because “nothing in the proclamations impairs or otherwise affects the activities of the Department of Defense. Among other things, the DoD is ensured full freedom of navigation in accordance with the law of the sea, and the U.S. Navy can continue effective training to maintain its antisubmarine warfare and other capabilities.” In other words, the military is exempt from most environmental regulations and prohibitions.

Ironically, the public may no longer be allowed to fish in these “protected” areas because it might affect the fragile ocean ecosystem, yet the military can conduct weapons training and testing. Remember, marine monuments are not designed to protect the ocean from the U.S. military, one of the worst polluters in the world. In fact the opposite is true: they are designed to allow easier military access. As activists in Hawai’i know, these national monuments could become “watery graves” for endangered species when military training occurs.

Besides providing more federally controlled space for the U.S. military to train, marine monuments give military bases another layer of secrecy from the public. This buffer strategy is spreading to other nations. During the meeting of the U.S. State Department sponsored Our Ocean conference last week in Washington DC, other countries announced similar plans to federalize massive ocean areas, including Palau, Kiribati, the Cook Islands and the Bahamas. These new marine reserves will become military sanctuaries, buffer zones and watery bases for the U.S. military as it forcefully positions itself in the Asia-Pacific region (and uses “illegal fishing” as justification to militarize these marine reserves).

We need to be critical of these efforts. Read about what happened to the Cayos Cochinos, an island group in the Carribean off Honduras, during the twenty years after they were declared a “protected area.” The Afro-Indigenous Garifuna peoples have been displaced from their lands and fishing grounds. Tourism developers and other private industries have invested in and exploited the islands. And, you guessed it, the U.S. military is using the area for basing and training, providing millions of dollars of aid to the Honduras government. This is what will happen to countries that ally with the U.S. in this colonial conservation scheme.

In 2009, Britian designated a marine protected area around the Chagos islands. However, the waters around the island of Diego Garcia, which is the site of one of the most secretive overseas U.S. military bases, was exempted. How bizarre: a secretive U.S. military base in the Indian Ocean surrounded by a 200-mile marine preserve controlled by the British government. Peter Sand, in “The Chagos Archipelago: Footprint of Empire, or World Heritage?”, pointedly asks whether these new marine reserves are “an anachronistic example of ‘environmental imperialism’, or evidence of an equally outdated variant of ‘fortress conservation’ that disregards human rights under the noble guise of nature protection.” Either way, the Chagossians who were removed from their islands may never be able to return.

How do Private Corporations Benefit from Marine Monuments?

As I mentioned before, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is under the Department of Commerce (DOC). Does that seem strange to you? It certainly seems strange to Obama, when he joked during his 2011 State of the Union address: “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater.” Obama wants to move NOAA to the Department of the Interior.

Joking aside, it actually makes perfect (or perverse) sense that NOAA remains in DOC, which promotes trade and economic development. A few years ago, then Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton dubbed the 21st century: “America’s Pacific Century.” This strategic turn aims to expand trade, investment, and militarization throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The cornerstone of America’s Pacific Century is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that has been described as “NAFTA on steroids.” As Clinton stated, the continued economic growth of the region depends on the “security and stability that has long been guaranteed by the U.S. military.” It is not surprising that TPP negotiations, as well as militarization proposals in the Pacific, intensified around the same time that President Bush designated the first marine monument in 2006.

So what are these economic opportunities, and what does the TPP have to do with the surge of marine national monuments and reserves designated by the U.S. federal government and its allies?

First, the more military sanctuaries the U.S. has around the world, the more federal tax money will be spent to secure these areas for investment, which means more profit for the military industrial complex and private defense firms.

Second, does something smell fishy? The justification for many of these marine reserves is to prevent illegal fishing and fish fraud, especially from China. With a massive fleet of 2,000 distant-water, state-subsidized fishing vessels, China catches nearly five tons of fish a year, worth more than $10 billion—some legally and some illegally. In contrast, nearly 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. By establishing marine monuments, and encouraging its allies in the Pacific to do the same, the U.S. could effectively shut out China from Pacific tuna waters. In turn, private U.S. tuna corporations could negotiate contracts with Pacific allied nations to develop Pacific fisheries or to obtain exclusive fishing rights within the marine reserves (as well as access to cheap labor and canneries). This comes at a time when foreign-owned and American-owned canned-tuna companies are battling for control over our kids’ school lunches. Billions of dollars of tuna are on the plate.

Third, wherever you find a national monument, you will find a tourism industry. The Cayos Cochinos is a prime example. The government that controls the marine monument can permit private companies to operate tourism centers, hotels, eco-adventures—all in the name of development and jobs. The concessions throughout the U.S. National Park Service are owned and operated by private companies, which gross over $1 billion annually. There are more than 500 companies, from food to lodging to adventure sports to retail, that have contracts with the National Parks. Of course, the entire National Park system was one way of displacing Native American presence on these lands.

Fourth, the Pacific has long been a “laboratory” for Western science and technology. Since another justification for marine reserves is scientific research, then we will see many more unprecedented grants for oceanography research. This research can be transformed into profit by private industries, such as deep-sea mining, geo-thermal energy, open-ocean (genetically modified) aquaculture, and pharmaceutical drugs derived from ocean microbial bacteria.

New Zealand established a Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 2008 to protect engangered dolphins, yet it is now considering opening the area up for oil drilling. This is not a contradiction; this is exactly what these conservation schemes are designed for.

Lastly, do you want to see Avatar 2 with me when it comes out? In 2012, James Cameron dived in a submarine to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on earth, which is protected by the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. He lit up the trench with an eight-foot tower of LED lighting to film 3D footage. In another celebrity sighting, Leonardo DiCaprio made a cameo at the State Department’s Our Ocean conference, donating $7 milllion towards marine reserves. Apparently, he’s a diving enthusiast.

What is Blue-Washing?

In the 21st century, national marine momunents, marine parks, marine preserves, marine refuges, marine sanctuaries and their other iterations are instruments that empower the federal government to take land and water away from indigenous and public access, scrutiny, and trust. The “marine monuments” are especially dangerous because they do not require—nor are they accountable to—legislative or public comment, engagement, or approval.

As David Vine, in “Environmental Protection of Bases,” notes: “For all the benefits that marine protection areas might bring, governments are using environmentalism as a cover to protect the long-term life of environmentally harmful bases. The designation also helps governments hold onto strategic territories.” Furthermore, these designations give the governments of the U.S. and its neoliberal allies the power to create contracts with private corporations to exploit the resources of our ocean for profit and not for the public good. Let’s call this a form of “Blue-washing.”

The word “monument” comes from the Latin, monumentum, meaning “grave” or “memorial.” If our oceans continue to become national marine monuments, our blue ocean will indeed become a watery grave, a memorial to the beauty, richness, and biodiversity that once was.

 

Further reading:

Mauritian socialists’ open letter to Greenpeace — `Don’t help cover up colonialism’s crimes on Diego Garcia’

Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of

In 2011, an ecologist released an alarming study showing that tiny clothing fibers could be the biggest source of plastic in our oceans. The bigger problem? No one wanted to hear it

by Mary Catherine O’Connor

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Ecologist Mark Browne takes samples from the shoreline. His pioneering work on microfiber waste has received little support from clothing brands. Photo: Mark Browne

Ecologist Mark Browne knew he’d found something big when, after months of tediously examining sediment along shorelines around the world, he noticed something no one had predicted: fibers. Everywhere. They were tiny and synthetic and he was finding them in the greatest concentration near sewage outflows. In other words, they were coming from us.

In fact, 85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibers, and matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.

It is not news that microplastic – which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines as plastic fragments 5mm or smaller – is ubiquitous in all five major ocean gyres. And numerous studies have shown that small organisms readily ingest microplastics, introducing toxic pollutants to the food chain.

But Browne’s 2011 paper announcing his findings marked a milestone, according to Abigail Barrows, an independent marine research scientist based in Stonington, Maine, who has helped to check for plastic in more than 150 one-liter water samples collected around the world. “He’s fantastic – very well respected” among marine science researchers, says Barrows. “He is a pioneer in microplastics research.”

By sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines, Browne estimated that around 1,900 individual fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment – ending up in our oceans.

microfibers
Tiny plastic fibers taken from a water sample in Blue Hill Bay in the gulf of Maine. Photograph: Marine Environmental Research Institute

Alarmed by his findings, Browne reached out to prominent clothing brands for help. He sought partnerships to try to determine the flow of synthetic fibers from clothing to the washing machine to the ocean. He also hoped his research might help develop better textile design to prevent the migration of toxic fibers into water systems.

The reaction wasn’t what he expected.

nike bicep ceres

Both Nike and Patagonia are BICEP (Ceres) members. The Ceres Coalition represents: the Ceres Network Companies, Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) (publicly launched in November 2003 at the first Institutional Investor Summit on Climate Risk held at the United Nations) and Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP: a coalition of more than 20 leading consumer brand corporations.) [Further reading: “Climate Wealth” Opportunists]

He contacted leaders in the outdoor apparel industry – big purveyors of synthetic fabrics – including Patagonia, Nike and Polartec. But none of these companies agreed to lend support.

“Perhaps it’s my pitch,” Browne joked. “We want to look for new, more durable materials that do not emit so much microplastic.”

In 2013, Brown presented his vision for a program called Benign by Design, backed by a team of engineers and scientists from academic institutions around the world as well as from the Environmental Protection Agency. The group’s goal is to help the industry tackle the problem of synthetic microfiber migration into waterways and marine ecosystems. He proposed creating a range of working groups where scientists and industry representatives would work together to develop synthetic materials that do not shed synthetic fibers – or do so minimally but are still cost-effective, high-performing and, if possible, rely on recycled materials.

Only one firm, women’s clothing brand Eileen Fisher, offered to support him. The company’s $10,000 grant has supported a section of Browne’s research over the past year.

“Any lifecycle issue, especially when it’s about a huge consumer product like clothing, is important,” says Shona Quinn, sustainability leader with Eileen Fisher. “[Browne] is raising an issue no one else has been studying.”

While Browne sees the grant as a validation of his efforts, 90% of the products Eileen Fisher sells are made of natural fibers. He’s still hoping to find a clothing company that will collaborate on research and development of new synthetic fabrics that will not shed microfibers.

While pitching his idea at the Launch innovation conference, Browne spoke to Jim Zieba, vice president of Polartec’s advanced concepts and business development group. In a follow-up email, Browne asked if Zeiba could provide him with polymers from Polartec textiles so that Browne could grow the database of materials he maintains to help discern the unidentified fibers in his samples. He did not hear back from Zeiba.

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Allon Cohne, global marketing director at Polartec, says he’s familiar with Browne and his research, but that Polartec has already done an internal study to analyze the effluent at its Lawrence, Massachusetts, manufacturing plant. Aside from characterizing the amount of microfibers contained in the effluent as “minimal”, Cohne said he could not publicly share the study or any details – such as what minimal means.

Browne says he’s glad to hear that Polartec conducted a study, but maintains that any truly scientific study would be open to peer review. (As it happens, the words “Committed to Science” are currently presented on Polartec’s website, above a video describing Polatec’s approach to fabric innovation.)

Patagonia, a company known for its strong environmental ethic and sustainable manufacturing processes, has also declined to work with Browne. The company’s strategic environmental responsibility manager, Todd Copeland, says the company considers Browne’s findings too preliminary to commit resources directly to a project like Benign by Design, until it sees more solid evidence that specific types of products or materials, such as fleece jackets or polyester base layers, are contributing to a major environmental threat. “I don’t know how much effort we want to spend looking for the solution before we know where the problem is,” Copeland says.

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Founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard

Browne says that, without industry support, he doesn’t know how he can move ahead with his efforts to address microfiber migration from textiles at their source.

“I think [clothing companies] have all put a lot of marketing money into environmental programs, but I’ve not seen evidence that they’ve put much money into research,” says Browne.

In fact, Patagonia maintains a policy to not directly support research, its spokesman Adam Fetcher told me. Instead, it supports non-profit groups doing environmental advocacy work. Over the past five years, Patagonia has awarded close to $70,000 in grants to groups focused on the microplastics pollution issue. These include Algalita Marine Research Foundation (founded by captain Charles Moore, who first raised the issue of microplastics in oceans), 5 Gyres, and Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), with whom Abigail Barrows works to collect surface water samples from around the world for her research into microfibers.

Abigail Barrows
Microplastic researcher Abigail Barrows draws water samples from a lobster boat. Photograph: Veronica Young

Perhaps Browne would have more luck if he were an environmental advocate rather than a scientist.

Still, Gregg Treinish, ASC executive director, says he would need to raise a great deal more money to fund the level of research he feels microfibers deserve. “Determining what type of plastic is in the water is hard and expensive – up to $1000 per sample.”

Bad chemistry

Browne’s difficulty in finding companies to cooperate might be compounded by the fact that the industry that is already under scrutiny for different environmental issues. According to the World Bank, textile manufacturing generates up to 20% of industrial wastewater in China, and a number of environmental groups, chiefly Greenpeace, have launched campaigns to pressure clothing makers to rid their supply chains of toxic chemicals, such as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) used in textile processing. PFCs are linked to environmental toxicity and human health problems, and Kevin Brigden, a chemist and Greenpeace honorary research fellow, says some manufacturers are finally beginning to phase them out.

But Brigden fears microfibers released from synthetic fibers could just as chemically hazardous. “Some chemicals are very water soluble, so they wash out [into wastewater during textile manufacturing],” Brigden says. “Others are less soluble so they take time to wash off. If fabrics break down then [microfibers] are another pathway for those [chemicals into the environment].”

Those fighting the use of microbeads in beauty products are finding more traction, Barrows says, because phasing them out is straightforward. Getting rid of synthetic fibers, on the other hand, would be extremely difficult. Not only are synthetic fabrics durable and versatile, but they can have smaller water and energy footprint than natural fabrics. “Synthetic fabrics have many great applications,” Barrows concedes, and determining how to measure their environmental impacts is an overwhelming challenge.

Other sources, other solutions

Polartec’s Cohne argues that too much emphasis is being placed on the clothing industry and that carpet and upholstery manufactures ought to be considered as equally important sources of synthetic microfiber runoff in the industrial sector. Professional carpet cleaners might be another vector.

Cohne also believes more onus should be put on washing machine manufacturers to find ways to capture the clothing fibers so that they do not ultimately enter wastewater treatment systems.

Browne has reached out to appliance manufacturers Siemens, Dyson (which sells washing machines in Europe), and LG, hoping to engage their design or research teams in a discussion about how they might be able to develop microfiber filters to prevent them from entering the water.

None has responded.

However, a Canadian tinkerer turned entrepreneur named Blair Jollimore is working on a solution. After his septic tank backed up and flooded his home, he discovered the main culprit was lint from his washing machine. So the former airplane engine mechanic, based in Nova Scotia, created a filter for his home laundry machine. “I’m a mechanical engineer, so I modified a water filter and added stainless steel screen,” says Jollimore. “I’ve been using it for 14 years.”

In 2003, some of his neighbors who were also having septic tank problems asked if he could make filters for their machines, too, and a home business was born. Jollimore has sold more than 1,000 of his filters to homeowners from England to Hawaii and now, with Browne’s encouragement, is preparing to pitch his filter to appliance makers as a way to rid wastewater of microfibers.

While he has found a screen that would capture strands down to 1 micron – necessary to stop all microfibers – he is still experimenting with what forcing water through such a fine filter could do to laundry machine function. “Every bit of dirt in your laundry would be captured, so it would back up the process,” he says.

As for capturing the fibers at their next stop, wastewater treatment plants, Browne is not optimistic. He says he has conferred with many engineers who work in sewage treatment and none of them thinks removing fibers – or microbeads, which enter wastewater through residential plumbing – is viable. Besides, he says, even if those microplastics were removed from the liquid waste, they would end up in sludge, which in some places ends up being turned into fertilizers. In those cases, the plastics would still enter the ecosystem, and conceivably the food chain.

Browne concedes that more research is required to better understand the sources and impacts of synthetic microfibers in the environment, and he wishes he could get the clothing companies on his side. “The [textile] people I’ve talked to have not been trained environmental scientists, they’re more often marketing people.”

“Industry is saying, ‘you just have to do more work on it’. But that will require someone to support it,” he says. “It seems to be a way of avoiding dealing with the problem.”

 

[Mary Catherine O’Connor is an independent reporter and co-founder of Climate Confidential.]

 


The (Illusory) Green Economy – A Critical Analysis by Dr.Joanna Boehnert

The work of environmental scientists supporting the UN’s GEP will give scientific authority the project, but the important decisions will have already been made. The project is a deepening commitment to neoliberal free markets. On a macroeconomic level “the subordination of social and environmental considerations to macroeconomic policy imperatives” is the fundamental basis of neoliberalism (Nadal, 2012, p.15). Once “macroeconomic objectives are determined, every other policy target is chiseled in accordance” (Ibid., p. 15). The lessons of the recent economic crisis in regards to the fallibility of the financial sector are entirely ignored.

 

The architects of the project have failed to acknowledge the most expansive systemic dynamics of capitalism and ignored the political and historic context. Despite claims by the UNEP, the UN’s GEP is not policy neutral (Ibid., p. 23).

 

The UN’s GEP is supported by the financial and corporate sectors because they recognize the programme as a continuation of the neoliberal model, an expansion of the scope of market and also an exceptional opportunity to create entirely new financial instruments. Similarly to the financial deregulation that set up conditions for the dramatic plunder of public wealth during the current economic crisis, the UN’s GEP establishes new markets that will lead to new avenues for financial speculation. The speculative bubble during the 2008-2009 period has been estimated to cost governments globally at least $12 trillion (Conway quoting IMF, 2009) leaving several bankrupt national governments and severe economic austerity in its wake. This is the context in which the UN’s GEP is operating. The designers of the project have closely aligned themselves to the same financial institutions that played leading roles in the economic crisis.

 

Meanwhile, scientific institutions, environmental NGOs and government agencies are working to build institutional infrastructure to give scientific authority to the UN’s GEP. …The historical critique of capitalism presented by John Bellamy Foster (2002) and others describes that the appropriation of the commons is an integral aspect of capitalism. Capitalism is always looking for new means of producing profit from activities that were otherwise not managed through commodity relationships.

 

The Indigenous People’s Kari-Oca 2 Declaration describes the UN’s GEP as ‘a continuation of colonialism… a perverse attempt by corporations, extractive industries and governments to cash in on Creation by privatizing, commodifying and selling off the Sacred and all forms of life and the sky’ (2012, p.1-2). The programme of re-visioning of the commons as sets of commodities ripe for exploitation is diametrically contrary to the environmental rhetoric used to sell the project.

Corporate NGOs Work Hand in Hand With Walmart to Privatize Earth’s Oceans & Fisheries

illustration: zeeninginlaos

Walton Family Foundation Sunk $71.4 Million into Greenwashing Schemes

 

Over $36 million alone was handed over to “Marine Conservation” grantees including the Ocean Conservancy, Conservation International Foundation, Marine Stewardship Council, World Wildlife Fund and EDF. All of these organizations are notorious for their role in corporate greenwashing efforts across the globe.

 

“The Walton Family Foundation is funding the Environmental Defense Fund, which wants to commodify water through water marketing and privatize our fish through catch shares program,” said Grader. “These are tools used by corporations to further the growing disparity between 1 percent and rest of us.”

 

California Progress Report

November 19th, 2012

By Dan Bacher

 

Much recent media attention has focused on Walmart’s announcement that it is canceling Thanksgiving plans for many of its employees. These workers will now have to work on the holiday as the retail giant kicks off its holiday sale at 8 PM on Thanksgiving Day, rather than waiting until midnight on “Black Friday.”

“The result is troubling for advocates for workers’ rights, as Walmart has encroached repeatedly on a holiday that traditionally involves plenty of time spent with family and away from work,” according to a statement from the Corporate Action Network. “The decision to move up the start of Black Friday sales to Thursday could be an attempt to thwart the workers’ organization efforts scheduled for Black Friday.

Labor, social justice and human rights groups are supporting a nationwide boycott of Walmart on Black Friday to back the strike of Walmart workers that day.

However, less well known to the public is Walmart’s ambitious campaign of corporate greenwashing in recent years.

The Walton Family Foundation proudly reported “investments” totaling more than $71.4 million in “environmental initiatives” in 2011, including contributions to corporate “environmental” NGOs pushing ocean privatization through the “catch shares” programs and so-called “marine protected areas” like those created under Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative.

According to a press release from the Walmart Headquarters in Bentonville Arkansas, the foundation made grants to more than 160 organizations in the U.S. and other countries “that work to protect natural resources while strengthening the local economies that depend on them.”

The foundation directed an overwhelming majority of the grants toward its two core environmental initiatives – “Freshwater Conservation and Marine Conservation.”

“Our work is rooted in our belief that the conservation solutions that last are the ones that make economic sense,” claimed Scott Burns, director of the foundation’s Environment Focus Area. “The foundation and our grantees embrace ‘conservationomics’ – the idea that conservation efforts can and should bring economic prosperity to local communities.”

The foundation donated $30.5 million to Marine Conservation, $26,842,289 to Freshwater Conservation and $14,022,907 for “Other Environment Grants.”

The Top Five Grantees were Conservation International, $16,208,278; Environmental Defense Fund, $13,683,709; the Marine Stewardship Council $3,122,500; Nature Conservancy $3,024,539, and the National Audubon Society, $2,739,859.

Conservation International, the top recipient with $16,208,278, is an organization noted for its top-down approach to conservation and involvement with corporate greenwashing.

The Walton Foundation press release claimed that, “Conservation International continued to implement a three-year program to empower local communities to manage and conserve fishing resources on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast.”

However, the group’s board features controversial corporate leaders such as Rob Walton and Stewart Resnick.

Rob Walton, Walmart Chairman, serves as the Chairman of the Executive Committee of Conservation International. Serving with him on Conservation International’s Board of Directors is Stewart Resnick, the owner of Paramount Farms.

Resnick has been instrumental in campaigns to build the peripheral canal to increase water exports to agribusiness and Southern California, to eviscerate Endangered Species Act protections for Central Valley Chinook salmon and Delta smelt and to eradicate striped bass in California. The Center for Investigative Reporting describes Resnick as a “Corporate Farming Billionaire and One-Man Environmental Wrecking Crew.”

Resnick is notorious for buying subsidized Delta water and then selling it back to the public for a big profit, as revealed in an article by Mike Taugher in the Contra Costa Times on May 23, 2009.

“As the West Coast’s largest estuary plunged to the brink of collapse from 2000 to 2007, state water officials pumped unprecedented amounts of water out of the Delta only to effectively buy some of it back at taxpayer expense for a failed environmental protection plan, a MediaNews investigation has found,” said Taugher.

Taugher said the “environmental water account” set up in 2000 to “improve” the Delta ecosystem spent nearly $200 million mostly to benefit water users while also creating a “cash stream for private landowners and water agencies in the Bakersfield area.”

“No one appears to have benefitted more than companies owned or controlled by Stewart Resnick, a Beverly Hills billionaire, philanthropist and major political donor whose companies, including Paramount Farms, own more than 115,000 acres in Kern County,” Taugher stated. “Resnick’s water and farm companies collected about 20 cents of every dollar spent by the program.”

Likewise, the Nature Conservancy, a group that received $3,024,539 from the Walton Family Foundation, in 2011, is also known for its strong support of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build the peripheral tunnels that Resnick and other corporate agribusiness interests so avidly support. A broad coalition of fishermen, Indian Tribes, environmentalists, family farmers and elected officials opposes the construction of the tunnels because they would hasten the extinction of Central Valley salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt and other species.

Drive to Privatize Fisheries

illustration: zeeninginlaos

Environmental Defense Fund, with the second highest donation at $13,683,709, is known for its market-based approach to conservation and its push for “catch shares” that essentially privatize the oceans. The relationship between the group and the retail giant is so close that it operates an office in Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart is headquartered.

“Environmental Defense Fund released its ‘Catch Shares Design Manual: A Guide for Fishermen and Managers’ to provide a roadmap to catch share design, which is a focus of our Marine Conservation initiative,” according to the Walton Family Foundation.

A catch share, also known as an individual fishing quota, is a transferable voucher that gives individuals or businesses the ability to access a fixed percentage of the total authorized catch of a particular species.

“Fishery management systems based on catch shares turn a public resource into private property and have lead to socioeconomic and environmental problems. Contrary to arguments by catch share proponents – namely large commercial fishing interests – this management system has exacerbated unsustainable fishing practices,” according to the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

True to form, Sam Rawlings Walton, the grandson of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, serves on the Board of Trustees of EDF.

Times Articles Put Spotlight on Walmart, Highlight Media Failures

Two New York Times articles in April 2012 put Walmart and the Walton family’s “dirty laundry” in the international spotlight, leading to a renewed call by the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) for the public to support their boycott of Walmart.

The Times articles covered Walton family support for anti-fishing, pro-privatization efforts in North America, followed by the publication’s exposure of alleged $24 million worth of bribes in Central America to speed up the chain’s expansion into Mexico.

“The headlines prove that Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation are no friends of local communities anywhere, and their ongoing efforts to destroy coastal fishing businesses through support of arbitrary marine reserves and privatization of fish stocks nationwide should not be supported by anglers,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio. “We’re asking coastal fishermen who support open access, under the law, to healthy and sustainable fish stocks to send a clear message to this arrogant corporation that we’ve had enough of their greenwashing and grafting efforts.

Donofrio noted that Walmart made world headlines following a New York Times story that charges the Bentonville, Arkansas company and its leaders of squashing an internal investigation into suspected payments of over $24 million in bribes to obtain permits to build in Mexico.

The bribery scandal was exposed on the same day that the Gloucester Times of Massachusetts exposed a reporting lapse in another recent New York Times article about the relationship between Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Walmart partnering together for “more enlightened and sustainable operations.”

The New York Times had earlier reported that EDF “does not accept contributions from Wal-Mart or other corporations it works for.”

However, when confronted on the fact that the $1.3 billion Walton Family Foundation (started in 1987 by Wal-Mart’s founders, Sam and Helen Walton, and directed presently by the Walton family) has been underwriting EDF’s successful effort to replace the nation’s mostly small-business, owner-operated fishing industry with “a catch shares model designed to cap the number of active fishermen by trading away ownership of the resource to those with the deepest pockets,” the author of the New York Times report conceded by email that in her rush to meet deadlines, she had not considered the relationship between the Walton family and Wal-Mart, according to Donofrio.

“I didn’t think to check the EDF board for Walton family members, or Walton Family Foundation donations,” said reporter Stephanie Clifford, adding “None of the third parties I’d spoken to had mentioned that connection, which isn’t an excuse – I should have thought of it myself, but didn’t.

RFA is hoping that saltwater anglers and fishing business owners help send Walmart stocks tumbling by refusing to shop at the corporate giant any longer.

“The Walton family uses their fortune to buy off friends who’ll cover for their despicable business practices, whether it’s corporate greenwashing with EDF, rebranding efforts through national trade association campaigns, or apparently by way of directed bribes to local officials in other countries,” Donofrio said. “Don’t just stop buying fishing tackle at Wal-Mart – stop supporting this company altogether and let’s quit supporting complete buyouts and takeovers of local communities.”

In August 2011, RFA asked fishermen to publicly boycott Walmart stores following issuance of a news release from Wal-Mart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas where the Walton family announced investments totaling more than $71.8 million awarded to various environmental initiatives.

Over $36 million alone was handed over to “Marine Conservation” grantees including the Ocean Conservancy, Conservation International Foundation, Marine Stewardship Council, World Wildlife Fund and EDF. All of these organizations are notorious for their role in corporate greenwashing efforts across the globe.

The RFA pointed out that by contributing over $36 million to NGOs promoting alleged “marine protected areas” like those created under Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative and catch share programs in 2010, the Waltons were contributing to the demise of sustainable recreational and commercial fisheries and the privatization of the oceans.

Commercial Fishermen Back Boycott

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, supports RFA’s boycott of Walmart.

“People who are concerned about our environment or labor rights should all be boycotting Walmart,” said Grader. “Their polices are clearly intended to commodify our natural resources and put them under the control of large corporations.”

“The Walton Family Foundation is funding the Environmental Defense Fund, which wants to commodify water through water marketing and privatize our fish through catch shares program,” said Grader. “These are tools used by corporations to further the growing disparity between 1 percent and rest of us.”

“I’ve been boycotting Walmart for decades and it’s absolutely great that recreational and commercial fishermen are together on this,” concluded Grader.

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