Delivering environmental and social benefits to communities in Australia, Asia and the South Pacific

deep sea project

Overview of Impact

Some mining companies are now using the deep seabed as a dumping ground for their waste, and this industry has begun to plan mines in the deep sea.  As organisms can be smothered and toxic metals released during these activities, there are risks to marine biodiversity and human health. In developing countries, millions of people also use highly-poisonous mercury to extract gold in small mines. Southern Cross University has brought its expertise to bear on these three problematic activities

Southern Cross University developed deep sea toxicity tests and helped South Pacific communities develop tools to assess applications for deep sea mines. As a result of Southern Cross University’s research in this area, the use of mercury in gold mining has been banned in an Indonesian region, and communities are no longer eating fish with high levels of mercury.

  • Local Government
  • Local communities near Deep Sea Tailings Disposal sites
  • Local communities that will be impacted by Deep Sea Mining
  • Non Government Organisations (NGOs) in developing countries
  • Local government policy makers in Indonesia
  • Government policy makers in Pacific Island nations (Papua New Guinea (PNG), Cook Islands, New Zealand (NZ))
  • Environmental Agencies in Indonesia, PNG and South Pacific nations
  • Local industries in PNG and Indonesia
  • Coastal and marine managers (international reach)
  • Environmental consultants in Australia, NZ and Indonesia
  • Regulatory bodies in Australia

Leading a group of Southern Cross University scientists, Associate Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett addressed the urgent need for standard toxicity test methods for tropical marine species. The initial focus was on coral. Due to the difficulty of keeping coral alive in aquariums, Professor Reichelt-Brushett undertook pioneering work using proxy species. Furthermore, her concerns that environmental assessments of Deep Sea Tailings Disposal (DSTD) were using inappropriate (shallow water, temperate) species for toxicity testing, led to development of toxicity tests with a deep-sea representative species. This work benefitted environmental consultants and governments in Australia, Asia and the South Pacific.

Professor Reichelt-Brushett was also an ‘enabler’ for the science surrounding DSTD. She enhanced understanding of the sources, fate and consequences of contaminants in marine waste disposal, and her conceptual models and risk assessment tools were used by United Nations (UN) sponsored entities, governments, NGOs, industry and local communities.

A key challenge for mining is the environmentally-sound disposal of tailings. Most mining operations use on-land disposal but by 2015, 16 major mining operations were using DSTD which involves piping a slurry to the bottom of the seabed where it is expected to settle below the biologically productive zone. Research has shown that ocean upwelling can result in plumes of fine material forming at various depths. These may act as either physical stressors (suspended sediment load settling on organisms) or chemical stressors (toxic contaminants in the marine ecosystem). DSTD has the potential to physically alter the bottom habitat, reduce species composition and abundance, and adversely affect marine biodiversity and human health (bioaccumulation of metals in food webs). Given the lack of knowledge of the deep sea, there is much to understand about impacts and risks.

In 2011, Professor Reichelt-Brushett was an expert witness on tropical marine toxicity testing for the Papua New Guinea (PNG) court case Bismarck Ramu Group (NGO, on behalf of community plaintiffs) vs Ramu Nickel. The case led to heightened awareness of the dangers of DSTD within the PNG government. Subsequent to the case, the Professor developed a DSTD risk assessment tool which focused on tailings characterisation, development of ecotoxicology testing and bioaccumulation and biomagnification studies.

Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett’s international profile resulted in a 2016 invitation as one of 19 expert presenters at the UN-funded Joint Group of Experts on Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) workshop, Peru. More than 90 stakeholders (miners, scientists, community members, policy makers, marine managers, NGOs) discussed impacts of DSTD, and the Professor’s 2012 generalised conceptual model of exposure pathways of DSTD was used to frame the proceedings. The workshop made recommendations to inform regulatory decision-making at international and national levels. Professor Reichelt-Brushett was subsequently invited on a consortium (10 multi-discipline international scientists) to provide expertise for policy makers.

In developing countries, around 15 million people use mercury (Hg) for gold extraction in Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining (ASGM). Inhalation of Hg vapour produces harmful effects on nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal. Communities downstream from ASGM can also be poisoned by Hg via biomagnification in the food chain. Children and foetuses are especially vulnerable. Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett’s reputation in Indonesia was cemented when she influenced policy change during a gold rush on Buru Island. She found Hg in the ocean at three times trigger value (needing action), in holding ponds at levels higher than the Minamata Convention (UN-sponsored, global, legally-binding instrument on Hg), and elevated Hg levels in fish (90% of local protein source). She also met with local government officials (2013-14) and, in the face of compelling evidence, they banned illegal mining. The Professor also worked with Environmental Authorities (Buru 2014, Ambon 2016). Her expertise benefitted Indonesian policy makers and delivered demonstrable positive environmental and social impacts to local communities.

Demand for metals has led to interest in mining highly-concentrated deposits found on the sea bed. Despite concerns about the environmental impacts of Deep Sea Mining (DSM), a number of exploration licences have been granted in the Pacific, and the first commercial mining operation is being scoped off PNG. DSM sites are typically biodiversity hotspots and concerns have been raised about disturbances to the benthic layer, increased toxicity and sediment plumes. Using her DSTD expertise,  Professor Reichelt-Brushett led a 2015 Pacific-Europe Network for Science, Technology and Innovation (PACE-Net) project on DSM in the South Pacific. This UN-funded initiative identified risk-assessment tools for government and local industries, and provided social and environmental benefits to communities which rely on subsistence living and healthy ecosystems to extract daily food and protein.

Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett’s involvement with the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) provided opportunities to disseminate information on ecotoxicology and ecosystem integrity. She delivered two presentations in PNG (2010), and nine presentations and workshops in Indonesia (2010-16). She served on the Board of SETAC’s Asia Pacific Chapter (2015). Her expertise benefitted PNG and Indonesian environmental consultants, marine managers, local industries, policy makers and environmental agencies (which often lack knowledge to assess DSTD application and monitor operations).

Australian regulators and management consultants benefitted from Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett’s expertise. She served on the Technical Peer Review Panel for Revision of Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality (2015) and conducted independent reviews of six elements for this authoritative guide for water quality. Her research has delivered demonstrable, positive environmental and social impacts in Australia, Asia and the South Pacific.

2004-05 Associate Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett and Professor Peter Harrison (both SCU)developed new ecotoxicology testing methods to assess effects of copper (Cu),lead, zinc, cadmium and nickel (Ni) on fertilisation rates of hard corals Goniastrea aspera, Goniastrea retiformis, Acropora tenuis and Acropora longicyathus. Professor Reichelt-Brushett and Michalek-Wagner’s (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority – 40% contribution) work on effects of Cu on fertilisation success of soft coral Lobophytum compactum was a world 1st. They calculated EC50 values (concentration that reduces fertilisation rate by 50%) for metals. The Professor also assessed effects of Cu (1st international study), Ni (1st EC50 value) and cobalt on fertilisation success of common hard coral Platygyra daedalea 2016.

2012-16 Professor Reichelt-Brushett made an innovative contribution to ecotoxicology testing methods by using substitute species as proxies in testing regimes. Reichelt-Brushett /Howe/Clark (all SCU) pioneered use of Exaiptasia pallida anemone as a coral proxy/successfully developed a sub-lethal toxicity test. Follow up work on this substitute species was undertaken by the Professor, with Krassoi and Micevska (Ecotox Services Australia – 20% contribution)/adopted by Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist.

Professor Reichelt-Brushett has also extended/modified water assessment techniques for deep sea. The eurybathic brittle star Amphipholis squamata was successfully used as a deep-sea representative species Professor Reichelt-Brushett and Black of SCU and Clark (2016). She additionally developed conceptual models/risk assessment tools to enhance understanding of contamination risks in deep-sea waste disposal.