A U.S. government team will fly to Saudi Arabia next month to assess the environmental consequences of mining the Red Sea bottom for silver, zinc and other valuable metals.
Sources said yesterday that mud samples from deep holes in the sea bottom indicate that a rich store of metals lies in the depths between Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
The two countries have joined to explore the possibility of mining the Red Sea, a venture that would complicate international efforts to regulate such activities.
A State Department official said the U.S. government's role to date has been limited to assessing the environmental consequences of Red Sea mining, not promoting it. The official said that Dr. Zaki Mustapha, secretary general of the Sudanese-Saudi Red Sea Commission, had requested the American help.
Mining sea mud for minerals, as distinguished from raking up manganese nodules on the ocean floor, would be a first, according to Dr. Robert Burns, who will head the scientific team going to Saudi Arabia's port city of Jeddah in mid-January.
Burns, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who specializes in marine ecosystems, said yesterday that the Red Seahas deep "brine holes" which accumulate deposits of salt.
The walls of these deep holes contain heavy metals which can be reached with deep sea mining rigs that vacuum up the mud after it has been broken up by hoe-like devices.
Burns said his team, which includes specialists from the Army Corps of Engineers and Geological Survey, will determine what effect the mud stirred up by the mining would have on Red Sea marine life, especially in the reefs along the coast.
The Red Sea "is not an open sea," Burns said. "It has a fragile ecosystem." Some of the metals stirred up by the mining, he said, "possibly, underline possibly," might be ingested by marine life.
The most promising brine holes for valuable minerals lie about half way between Jeddah and Port Sudan. Saudi Arabia and Sudan at first argued over the rights to metals before establishing the two-nation Red Sea Commission.
The commission already has hired a West German firm which has been doing exploratory mining in the Red Sea. A deep sea rig from Sedco, a Texas firm headed by William P. Clements, former deputy secretary of defense and now the Republican governor-elect of Texas, is expected to conduct further Red Sea exploration.
The Red Sea metals lie about 1.2 miles underwater, or at about half the depth of the manganese nodules on the Pacific Ocean floor. This makes the Red Sea easier to mine.
The U.S. government has been trying for years to prevent commercial mining of the sea bottom until the countries of the world agree on how to divide the riches. But the United Nation's Law of the Sea Conferences have failed to yield an agreement.
If Saudi Arabia and Sudan should begin commercial mining of the Red Sea after their current explorations, U.S. mining companies also would demand strenuously to be allowed to mine the deep sea.