Lawmakers are concerned that mining could impact Hawaii’s shores.

Sea mining could bring adverse effects on the marine floors of Hawaii, creating clouds of mud that push away fish, destroying seabeds and imposing irreversible damage on the seafloor, environmental advocates argue. 

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But economically, there is high demand worldwide for materials that could be used to create lithium-based technologies like rechargeable batteries and smartphone components. Pacific Ocean waters, including those near Hawaii, could host rich deposits of those materials, potentially attracting speculators. 

Hawaii legislators are considering blocking any deep-sea mining developments before they get established in areas that could affect local marine waters. Senate Bill 376 would prohibit the extraction of minerals and mining in all state waters. The bill does not allow for any permits to be issued to any operation that impedes upon Hawaii seabeds. 

Kaena Ocean Sea Lagoon
Lawmakers are concerned that mining could impact Hawaii’s shores. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022)

Les Watling, a retired University of Hawaii marine biology professor, said the area of highest concern isn’t in Hawaii but in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific. That area houses rare earth materials, such as cobalt and lithium, that help to make things like touch screens and large batteries for electric cars, which is of great interest to sea-mining companies. Such mining operations also threaten coral, fish, and other ecological aspects of the seafloor.

There is no active sea mining in Hawaii to date, according to the bill’s introducer, Sen. Chris Lee. But research into the idea has fueled the possibility of it. 

SB 376 was created in response to the expiration of an international moratorium aimed at protecting the Pacific waters from deep-sea mining. Washington, California, and jurisdictions in Canada already have adopted similar measures in creating legislation to protect their sea waters. 

“We could lose billions of dollars out of our economy” due to sea mining, Lee said. “From the loss of coral reefs, we can lose significant amounts of money from tourism, the fishing industry and insurance costs.” 

Legislators have received about 30 pieces of public testimony in support of SB 376, all of which express concerns about the potential irreversible damage of deep-sea mining. So far, no one has testified in opposition of the bill.

“I think this is something that everyone can get behind,” Lee said. 

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The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is among agencies that support the bill.

“Protecting the health and life of the ocean is in essence, tantamount to protecting the health and life of Native Hawaiians, Hawai’i, and all those who call Hawai’i home. Without the ocean, there is no life,” OHA said in written testimony.

SB 376 passed the House Water and Land Committee on Tuesday. It now awaits a hearing before the House Finance Committee.

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