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Would-be offshore ironsands miner TransTasman Resources has been granted a mining permit to extract titano-magnetite sands some 22 to 36 kilometres off the coast of Patea, in the Exclusive Economic Zone.
The permit is granted by the New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals arm of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, but does not mean a green light for the half billion dollar project, which is separately seeking a marine resource consent under new regulations governing the EEZ.
The marine consent is being heard by a Board of Inquiry appointed by the Environmental Protection Authority, with a decision due in time for capital-raising to fund the project scheduled for June.
TTR's operation would be in a 66 square kilometre area that the company is arguing would suffer minor and reversible environmental damage. The project's opponents are arguing sand plumes created by depositing excess sand, stripped of its iron ore component, back on the ocean floor, could have effects well beyond the mining area.
The South Taranaki Bight's status as a habitat for the endangered Maui's dolphin and as a migratory route for blue whales has also been raised in evidence opposing the scheme.
"Though it would be several years before mining commenced, if a marine consent is granted, it is clear this project has considerable benefits," said NZP&M acting national manager for minerals, Heyward Bates.
The mining permit follows inspections of TTR's financial and technical capacity to undertake the proposed offshore mining operation, which would load iron ore onto bulk freighters for immediate export to Asian steel mills.
TTR believes its operation will remain cost-competitive, despite the recent weakness of global ore prices, because the undersea operation's costs are a fraction of the cost of terrestrial open cast or underground mining.