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Seabed mining

It represented a vast new frontier -- millions of acres of uncharted land believed to be rich in valuable minerals. Mining companies responded with Klondike-style fervor. Washington saw it as a way to reduce foreign dependency on strategic materials.

That was in the 1970s. Now, in the harsh economic and political realities of the 1980s, the idea of mining the ocean floor has tumbled from its gilt-edged pedestal.

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The reason is not any lack of supply. No one knows for sure how large the undersea mineral booty might be. But large deposits of potato-size nodules of manganese, copper, cobalt, and nickel have long been known to exist. Traces of silver, zinc, and lead are embedded in the ocean floor, too, though not in anything near commercial amounts.

Nor is technology the biggest hindrance. Many methods have been devised to dredge up minerals. These range from the more primitive (a loop system where buckets attached to a rotating cable are dragged along the sea floor) to the more exotic (a hydraulic lift where a three-mile pipe is suspended from a ship sucks up nodules like a vacuum cleaner). None have been tested on a large scale. But marine engineers believe several of the systems would work.

Instead, the chief drawback is hardnosed dollars and cents. Setting up a commercial deep-sea mining operation is expected to cost at least $1 billion. Given the somber state of the world metals markets, no company is ready to launch a risky venture at sea.

"The rewards are unbelievable -- but the risks are so high that most companies have shied away," says Subhash Malhotra, a senior consultant with Arthur D. Little Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm.

A number of US-based consortia formed in the 1970s to develop ocean mining operations have pared programs. Kennecott, for instance, the biggest partner in a group of six companies, has virtually ceased its seabed activities. Ocean Mining Associates, a Virginia-based group, once had 144 people on its payroll. Now there are fewer than two dozen.

This means that the start-up time for undersea mining will have to be moved from 1990 to the 21st century. "It is 10 to 20 years before a commerical operation will be going out there," says Richard Greenwald of Ocean Mining Associates.

The Gorda Ridge further illustrates this. It is a vast undersea area off the coasts of California and Oregon thought to contain mineral-rich sulfide deposits. As a first step in a worldwide push to mine the sea floor and reduce US imports of strategic metals, the Interior Department wanted to lease tracts on the ridge, a cleft nearly the size of the Grand Canyon, hemmed in by volcanic sea mounts. But the sale was recently postponed, partly because of opposition by environmental groups and tepid response from industry.

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In the long run, US companies may encounter another snag when working in international waters: Politics. Under the UN Law of the Sea Treaty, the ocean's riches are to be divvied up among the poor and landlocked countries as well as to the nations that find them.

The United States refused to sign the treaty. So have many other Western nations. But as long as there is any uncertainty about the status of US interests in international waters, bankers may chafe at underwriting ventures. Most US companies, however, do not foresee any such problems.

Closer to shore, the horizon is sharper. The Reagan administration has been encouraging exploration of natural resources that lie in US waters. Spurring the drive was the President's declaration of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in March of 1983. It gave the US economic sovereignty over an area extending 200 miles off US coasts -- a 3.9 billion-acre frontier. Among some of the recent developments:

*The US Geological Survey is working on a project to map the entire EEZ. The venture, expected to take at least 10 years, will be done using exotic research ships. The aim: to pinpoint mineral and energy deposits, as well as learn more about general seabed geology.

*In February, Hawaii and the Department of Interior formed a state-federal task force to explore the potential of mining crustal formations around the Hawaiian Islands. This area is believed rich in manganese, colbalt and nickel -- all used in making specialty steels. The US now imports most of these minerals.

*Another federal-state commission is being set up to look further at the economic and environmental impact of developing the Gorda Ridge. Although mining machinery may not get going on the seabed for 20 years or more -- if ever -- this area represents what some scientists see as an exciting new area in ocean geology: sulfide mineral deposits.

Unlike the nodules, these deposits are found in hot volcanic muds at the edge of spreading sea-floor centers where fresh oceanic crust forms. Little is known about sulfides. But geologists believe they may contain much higher concentrations of ore than nodules. "It is still basic science at this point," says Conrad Welling, senior vice-president of Ocean Minerals Company in Mountainview, California.

The US, meanwhile, faces mounting competition from other countries in harvesting the ocean's riches. Interest is booming in particular in some mineral shy Asian nations. India, Japan, South Korea, and China are all pushing programs. For now, the US remains several years ahead in seabed technology. But, warns Greenwald of Ocean Mining Associates, "the gap is closing."