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Offshore mining of ironsands deposited in the southern Taranaki Bight has come a step closer with the lodging of a mining permit application by TransTasman Resources, a privately held, Australian-led venture with plans for a multi-billion dollar export industry.
TTR's application is for a 65.76sq km area between 22km and 35km offshore from Patea in an area where it already holds a prospecting licence, outside the territorial waters of the 12 nautical zone and in New Zealand's vast Exclusive Economic Zone.
It plans to lodge a resource consent application for mining in October, using new environmental consenting regulations governing the EEZ.
TTR plans to use unconventional mining techniques, similar to those in development to mine offshore phosphate deposits on the Chatham Rise by New Zealand company Chatham Rock Phosphate.
In both cases, suction systems would remove ironsands and phosphate nodules along with seafloor sediment, extract the valuable elements and return the remainder to the seafloor.
Both companies have had extensive environmental studies under way for some years to try and prove the areas support relatively sparse marine life.
TTR says "prospecting work to date suggests there is a vast world-class mineral resource which could supply Asian markets with a reliable supply of low-cost iron ore".
The TTR process targets titanomagnetite in sands deposited far into the Taranaki Bight by volcanoes over millennia.
Australian mining giant Fortescue and the Chinese government's SinoMetals also hold prospecting licences for ironsands further north off the North Island west coast and ironsands have been mined for years at Taharoa Beach, near Port Waikato, for export.
While less commonly used than conventionally mined onshore iron ore in making steel, TTR believes its technology will be far cheaper than onshore mining and will make its product more resilient to the gyrations in global metal prices that have impacted aluminium, steel and coking coal markets in the last few years.
An environmental lobby group, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM), has been established to oppose the extraction, fearing environmental impacts not only far out at sea but also on inshore, fisheries, ecology and surf breaks.
"This is an important milestone for TTR," chief executive Tim Crossley says. "But it is just the first step in the overall approvals process."
The mining permit application will be assessed by New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals for technical data on the proposed resource, geology, the proposed work programme as well as TTR's ability to manage the project, and health and safety.
"Based on the environmental research conducted by [government-owned science body] NIWA and overseas experience, we have refined our extraction and processing methodology to minimise the potential environmental effects of our operations," Mr Crossley says.
"While the permit covers a relatively small area, the project should provide long term employment and benefits to the local communities of South Taranaki and Whanganui."
The company has been engaging iwi and local communities since early in the investigation phase, which began in 2009.
"The wider public will also have an opportunity to have their say on the project once we lodge our marine consents with the Environmental Protection Agency," Mr Crossley says in a statement.