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By Michael J. Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (September 26, 1997 - Agence France Presse)---The Pacific's leading regional scientific body has warned that significant marketing and engineering problems were still ahead for a radical under sea mining operation proposed in the Cook Islands.

"It is not so much that I am sceptical but, at first thought, I am doubtful it will happen. We need to know so much more," Philip Muller, the Director of the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) told AFP from Suva.

Last week, the Cooks said it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a Norwegian joint venture interested in dredging millions of dollars worth of manganese nodules from the sea-bed five kilometres (three miles) down in the Pacific Ocean.

Such mining is not currently carried out anywhere in the world.

The cobalt in the Cook's nodules has been estimated by the US engineering consultancy firm, Bechtel Corp., to be worth 710 billion US dollars at current market value.

Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Henry said after years of being dismissed as a fantasy, they were now trying to suppress their excitement.

"The stage may be set for great excitement," he said. "Those who have rubbished the dream will get a surprise."

Muller said at the Cook's request SOPAC had looked at the proposition put up by the Fridtjof Nansen Institute of Oslo which, with other companies, formed the Norwegian Deep-Sea Mining Group which last week signed the MOU with the Cook's Government.

Muller said the idea of bottom trawling for nodules at such depths involved "monstrous draglines" with major engineering implications alone. It was not known, because it had not been done, whether such lines would even work.

The other difficulty with the Cook's proposal was the price of cobalt and nickel.

"There is about to be a flood of cobalt on the market with Canada opening huge new mines," Muller said.

These alone would quadruple world cobalt production.

If it proved possible to bring up the Cook's nodules this could also be expected to suppress cobalt prices further.

Land based miners could be expected to vigorously defend their prices and contracts.

The environmental issues of bottom dredging were unknown.

Muller said there was a worry, too, that the Cook's scheme could prove too difficult but, by jumping too soon, they will frighten off any further investors who might be interested in under-sea mining.

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