A vast tract of ocean floor off the North Island's west coast has been opened up for seabed exploration, sparking fears about the possible impact on the coast's marine environment and its endangered wildlife.
Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) has been granted the exclusive right to explore for iron sand in an area of sea floor covering nearly 93,000 hectares between Kawhia and Awakino.
The exploration permit area borders a marine mammal sanctuary established to protect the critically endangered Maui's dolphin.
The permit, which was granted last week for a five-year term, allows for drilling up to 11 metres below the sea floor and bulk sampling. The exploration will determine if mining for minerals in the area is economically feasible.
TTR spokesman Andy Sommerville said drilling, which would be done at 1km intervals in a grid pattern, could start as early as this week.
Mr Sommerville said the environmental impact would be "just about zero".
"After you've taken the rig away it leaves a small depression roughly the depth of a diver's knife and about 400mm in diameter."
TTR is a New Zealand registered company, but its shareholders include RockCheck Trading, the investment arm of a Chinese steel company, and two Netherlands investment firms.
Exploration work off Taranaki's coast has already proven fruitful for the company, which has applied to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) for marine consent to extract iron sand from the sea floor 12-19 nautical miles offshore of Patea.
It proposes to take up to 50 million tonnes of iron sand per year and process it aboard a floating processing storage and offloading vessel.
But debate is raging about the possible environmental impacts of the operation.
The application has caused concern among some of the region's surfers, as well as divers and fishermen, who fear the sand plume created by the mining activity could negatively impact marine life.
Taranaki Regional Council has also raised questions over the potential environmental impacts of the proposed 20-year project.
Raglan-based Kiwis Against Sandbed Mining (KASM) has had its "hands full" monitoring TTR's Taranaki operation and preparing for the upcoming EPA hearings on the issue.
KASM spokesman Phil McCabe said concerned Waikato residents should watch the Taranaki hearings - due to start on March 10 - closely. Fairfax NZ
- Taranaki Daily News
Is high tea at a funeral parlour your cup of tea?Related story: High tea... in a funeral parlour