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May 2011 Issue

Setting the Gold Standard for Responsible Marine Mining
By Dr. Philomène Verlaan
Preventing damage to the marine environment is easier and usually cheaper than curing it. This maxim underpins the Code for Environmental Management of Marine Mining (the Code) by the International Marine Minerals Society (IMMS). Founded in 1987, the IMMS aims to stimulate research on and improve understanding of marine minerals while encouraging environmentally responsible development of marine mineral resources. The IMMS is the primary sponsor of the Underwater Mining Institute (UMI), an annual international forum where the marine mining community exchanges ideas and fosters partnerships.

Initiated by the IMMS following a request by the marine mining industry at UMI and adopted in 2001, the Code anticipates and integrates environmental considerations for responsible marine mining. The Code is necessary because little environmental regulation of marine mining exists, especially beyond the territorial sea and, excepting the work by the International Seabed Authority, almost none in any marine areas beyond national jurisdiction. This regulatory lacuna persists despite the mandatory and unqualified requirement under international law for states "to preserve and protect the marine environment," as stated in Article 192 in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC). This obligation applies everywhere, regardless of the nature of the activity or its location. States must ensure compliance by all entities, including companies, operating under their jurisdiction or control.

In promulgating the Code, the IMMS has worked to set a high bar for marine environmental protection duties on marine mining assigned under international law but still largely unfulfilled by states. The Code seeks to complement marine mining environmental regulations where they exist and to provide environmental principles and guidelines where these are absent or could be improved. Where the Code sets higher standards than those legally required, following higher standards and striving to improve the legally binding requirements are encouraged.

The Code consists of a statement of environmental principles and a set of operating guidelines. It provides a framework for development and implementation of a responsible environmental program for marine minerals exploration and extraction. It also offers a benchmark for stakeholders to assess proposed and actual applications of best environmental practices at marine mining sites. Its comprehensive scope ranges from research, exploration and exploitation to decommissioning and rehabilitation. It hopes to assist in developing regulatory predictability and minimizing risk, including environmental risks, in facilitating financial and operational planning, and establishing a level environmental "playing field." The Code sets broad directions in the context of shared values, rather than prescribing specific practices. Anyone may adopt the Code, which is voluntary.

Designed to be a living, adaptive document, responsive to improvements in best environmental practices, technological developments, changes in applicable regulations and experience with its implementation, the Code requires a periodic review in consultation with marine mining stakeholders. With massive marine sulphide mining at a commercial scale imminent, the marine mining industry proposed that the IMMS coordinate the first review of the Code at the 2008 UMI. This review is now underway.

The review process includes assessing other mining codes and environmental guidelines, as well as the international law of the sea, especially LOSC and its Part XI (Deep Seabed Mining) Implementation Agreement, and international environmental law. Extensive worldwide consultation is ongoing. Comments are coming in from a broad range of stakeholders, who are acknowledged in their individual capacity, unless they request otherwise, in Appendix 2 of the revised draft Code. All the comments received are planned to be placed verbatim but anonymously on the IMMS website.

IMMS has already received comments from companies beginning massive sulphide mining operations and scientists from the InterRidge Working Group on Seafloor Mineralization and the Chemosynthetic Ecosystems (ChEss) project with the Census of Marine Life, who recognized the value of this initiative for their research on hydrothermal vents and for further constructive dialogue with industry on areas of shared concern. The Code encourages its application by the marine mining industry to its contractors, and several of the latter have commented from their perspective.

The Code is an instructive example of a constructive and proactive industrial initiative to address environmental concerns raised by an emerging industry. It is hoped that the Code and the process of its development and evolution can assist other emerging industries seeking to engage constructively with their environmental challenges.

The final draft Code will be posted on the IMMS website, circulated to the IMMS members and formally presented for adoption at the IMMS Annual General Meeting, to be held in conjunction with the 40th meeting of the UMI, which is scheduled for September 14 to 18 in Hilo, Hawaii.

For the foreseeable future, the IMMS Code will be the only international instrument specifically designed to guide environmentally responsible and sustainable marine mining. It is likely to serve as an example when legally binding legislation is eventually introduced. The IMMS seeks the widest possible consultation on the draft, which is available here. To contribute your expertise to the revision of the Code and assist in the future responsible development and use of marine mineral resources, send comments to verlaan@hawaii.edu by June 30.


Dr. Philomène Verlaan, an oceanographer, attorney and visiting colleague at the University of Hawaii, serves as the technical liaison officer to the Institute for Marine Engineering, Science and Technology. She is a member of the IMMS executive board and coordinates the review of the Code for Environmental Management of Marine Mining.


2012:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC
2011:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC

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