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NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Jan. 31, 2008) - Mineral exploration for high grade copper-gold-zinc-silver sulfide deposits will start in Tongan waters in May, according to the manager of Nautilus Minerals Tonga, Paula Taumoepeau.

Paula said that the parent company, the Canadian registered Nautilus Minerals Inc., is the first in the world to commercially explore the seafloor for high-grade minerals. It currently holds more than 300,000 kilometers of tenement licenses and exploration applications in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, New Zealand and along the western Pacific Ocean’s Rim of Fire.

[PIR editor’s note: According to a January 2 story in The National, Nautilus Minerals awarded a £33 million (K168 million) contract to offshore technology company SMD Hydrovision to build the world’s first undersea mining equipment. The UK-based equipment supplier was commissioned to design two seafloor mining tools and also to develop Nautilus’ mining site off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The custom-made equipment would mine volcanic rock, known as massive sulphide, on the seabed believed to contain ores of metals including copper, zinc and gold. Mining operations were due to start in PNG in late 2010. ]

The company had apparently applied for a license to explore for minerals in Tonga several years ago, but there was no response from government at the time.

"Then last November the company filed another application for a license to explore for minerals in Tongan waters. This time the government was eager to process the application and by the end of December last year, we were issued a license to explore for minerals in Tonga’s waters."

Paula said that the exploration work would be carried out in the seabed area known as the Lau Basin, which he said is about 100 kilometers from Nuku’alofa at the depth of about 2,000 meters.

"The first exploration ship, a smaller one will arrive in May, to be followed by a bigger ship in June."

Paula said that during the past weeks they have been busy trying to secure local boats for transport between Nuku’alofa and their exploration base at the Lau Basin.

"We are trying to secure the supply of food, water and fuel. Our need for fuel, for example, would mean that we have to divert the tanker to refill our ships out at sea, because if we take out fuel requirements from the depot at Touliki there will be a shortage in town."

Paula said that although the company has the right to explore for minerals in other islands’ waters, but so far it has only operated in Papua New Guinea since 1995 and now Tonga which will start in May.

"In PNG the Exploration Phase started in 1995, and that has been concluded and they are now moving on to the Mining Phase."

Paula said that the Tongan operation will run a lot smoother than PNG because they will be using and refining techniques that they have used in PNG.

"The company aims at identifying 16 sites before we move on to the mining stage."

Paula said that the impact of the mining project on the environment is a major concern, and they are going to do whatever it is within their capabilities to protect the environment.

"For example, all the water that we will pump up from below the seabed will be returned to where it came from. Any solid waste will be transported here and taken to the rubbish dump at Tapuhia."

Paula was very optimistic with the exploration, based primarily on the expertise of the company, "and the kind of money they are investing. Following the success in PNG I think they know what they are looking for and where."

The benefit for Tonga of this project at this early stage will be the supplying of goods and services.

"It will also provide good employment opportunities once we get into the Mining Phase, and of course government will collect taxes from the minerals that will be discovered."

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