From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. A little over a week ago, filmmaker James Cameron came back from a submarine trip to the Mariana Trench and he said this about it. It was a very desolate place, isolated like visiting another planet.

SIEGEL: That illustrates the challenge of trips to the deepest parts of the ocean, but next year, an Australian company plans to start mining metal from the sea floor. If all goes as planned, they will bring copper, gold, silver and zinc up from the depths off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

NPR's Richard Harris reports this pioneering effort will target a natural hot spring that is an oasis for marine life.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: People have thought about mining the sea floor's mineral wealth for many decades and now a combination of high metal prices and sophisticated technology is making that possible.

Nautilus Minerals of Australia has a license from Papua New Guinea to mine a site the size of 21 football fields for its rich deposits of copper, gold, silver and zinc. Those minerals are found in very high concentrations because a natural hot spring on the sea floor has been laying them down for thousands of years.

Samantha Smith, a vice president for corporate responsibility of the company, says it's an operation that involves remotely piloted vehicles prowling around a mile under the surface.

SAMANTHA SMITH: You have two machines that cuts and they do different types of cuts and then you've got a third machine that goes along and then effectively sucks the material up from the sea floor.

HARRIS: The material is drawn into a long pipe like what's used in deep sea oil drilling. The riser pipe brings this slurry to ships on the surface. The mineral-rich material is hauled to shore and the water it came up with is filtered and pumped back to the sea floor. That way, it doesn't harm tuna, which swim closer to the surface.

And if it seems like a hassle to do all of this offshore, she says, think of the alternative, mining on land.

SMITH: You've got to dig a big hole in the ground to get to the ore body and you might even have to remove a mountain and then dig a big hole in the ground to get to the ore body.

HARRIS: Offshore, you aren't forcing people off their land to dig mines and you aren't contaminating rivers and streams.

SMITH: There's a potential environment advantage and, really, that's where the industry got a kick-start.

HARRIS: But the same natural hot springs that have deposited all that mineral wealth on the sea floor also support marine life. Cindy Van Dover, a marine biologist at Duke University, says the dominant animals at this site are marine snails.

CINDY VAN DOVER: To a biologist, especially, they're beautiful. They have symbiotic bacteria that live inside their gills and those bacteria supply the food energy that drives the community of animals that live there. In an otherwise relatively depauperate deep sea, these habitats are generally pretty rich oases of life.

HARRIS: Van Dover is among the scientists that Nautilus Minerals has been consulting in its attempt to limit the environmental damage. She says you can think of mining as a very aggressive experiment. What happens when you carve away the natural chimneys made of these minerals and grind down the surrounding rock?

DOVER: We know these systems are often exposed to disturbances. The chimneys fall down. There are volcanic eruptions in some places. And so the animals are adapted to re-colonizing new spaces fairly quickly, we think.

HARRIS: It's possible the marine life will be back in a year, she says, or not. The company will leave some parts of the area undisturbed so animals there can potentially re-colonize the site after the 30-month mining period is over. Still...

DOVER: I don't like the thought of messing up a pristine environment. I would rather see the deep sea stay unimpacted by human activities, but that's not a very rational view.

HARRIS: But George Woodwell at the Woods Hole Research Institute has a much more visceral reaction to destroying any deep ocean hot spring.

GEORGE WOODWELL: The organisms that have evolved to inhabit them are specially adapted to those places and they are well worth examining, looking at them. They are one of the wonders of the Earth to be preserved, as far as I'm concerned.

HARRIS: Woodwell argues it's time to stop degrading the Earth to sustain our consumptive lifestyles.

WOODWELL: So I don't have any sympathy for the idea that we should be mining the sea floor at this late stage in the development of the industrial society. We've got to be more mature than that.

HARRIS: Samantha Smith from Nautilus Minerals says our hunger for metals keeps growing, so mining will happen somewhere.

SMITH: What we're looking at here is more of a holistic view that, you know, maybe going to the sea floor makes - environmentally and socially - a lot more sense.

HARRIS: The mining activity is set to start toward the end of next year and, if it's successful, it could be the beginning of a whole new industry operating far from public view and, so far, with very little in the way of international rules and regulations.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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