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Monday, October 09, 2006


Old professors never die; they end up in mine shafts (but maybe not Homestake)

Colorado has a higher education corridor. Within a distance of 65 miles between Denver and Ft. Collins along I-25 are three major state universities: Colorado State in Ft. Collins, the Universitiy of Northern Colorado in Greeley, and the University of Colorado in Boulder. In Denver itself is the Auraria Campus which is home to a community college, Metropolitan State College of Denver, and departments of the University of Colorado. West from I-25 on I-70, just a few miles outside of Denver, are a couple of routes to Golden, home of the Colorado School of Mines. About 50 miles west of Denver just off of I-70 on route 40 is Empire, Colorado, where the Henderson Mine (photo above) is situated.

The Henderson Mine is the competitor with South Dakota's Homestake Goldmine, which the state now owns, for the site for the national Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory. Homestake and Henderson have been announced as finalists as choices for the site by the National Science Foundation and were each given a half million dollars to come up with detailed proposals for such a laboratory.

The National Science Foundation had originally planned to announce the site in December, but has postponed that decision until early in 2007. Last week it announced that it would accept proposals for other sites until January 9, 2007, and make its announcement of the final selection in the spring. In actuality that last call for proposals is to make sure that all factors that have to be taken into consideration for locating a single research and experiment site are brought to the attention of the Foundation and given thorough consideration.

When the DUSEL was first proposed by scientists who were using Homestake, it had no competition. A long list of factors made it an obvious and advantageous site. But the State of South Dakota got embroiled in negotiations regarding liabilities with Homestake's owners, Barrick Gold of Canada. The owners shut off the pumps that keep the mine dry and it started filling up with water. Most of the scientists who had supported Homestake realized that they had better look for other sites if they were ever to carry out the experiments and the research that require a deep underground facility. And so the competition was opened up with Homestake and Henderson being selected as finalists.

Homestake has been turned over to South Dakota and is under the supervision of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, headed by Dave Snyder, which has responsibility for its development. The Authority has solicited experiments from scientists and is working on a proposal details. Sioux Falls philanthropist T. Denny Stanford has pledged $70 million to Homestake if it is selected as the DUSEL site. Some scientists have suggested that the Stanford offer makes them wary. The DUSEL proposal for Homestake has been largely touted as an economic development project for South Dakota.

Many nations, including Canada, have established deep underground laboratories, and scientists fear that the kind of delay with legal issues and shaft flooding by Barrick Gold that obstructed the Homestake plans will cause further delay when private interests with economic development or political agendas get involved. The development time line is a crucial issue to scientists with experiments and research that need the underground laboratory.

The history of the development of the Henderson Mine proposal contrasts sharply with South Dakota's Homestake proposal. The Henderson plans are being formulated by a consortium of interested parties called the Colorado Alliance for Underground Science and Engineering (CAUSE). Cause consists of mine owner Phelps Dodge corporation, faculty from Colorado State University, whose physicist Bob Wilson is coordinating the project, the Colorado School of Mines, and a nonprofit group called the Arapahoe Project. The Arapahoe Project has contacts with scientists from other prominent university systems in places as far off as New York and California. CAUSE has a time line in place for the laboratory that calls for construction to begin in 2010 and the lab to be operational in 2015.

The proposals asked for by the NSF necessarily deal with matters of geology, engineering, and technical aspects of the laboratory, but the scientists emphasize that intellectual environment plays a huge role. Research universities along Colorado's higher education corridor have taken a leadership role in developing the Henderson plans. In South Dakota, the state's professors and scientists are not much involved. South Dakota ranks at the bottom of states in regard to its support of research, and this factor has a huge aspect for scientists who want to get on with their work.

CAUSE has made careful connections with the academic and scientific communities in developing its proposals. In contrast, the South Dakota proposal is largely a political enterprise with the governor using it prominently in his re-election campaign.

In a story by Pat Ferrier of the Ft. Collins Coloradoan, reviewers of the Henderson plan were quoted as saying it offered a "first rate scientific and engineering research program." Dave Snyder of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority declined to comment on prospects for the Homestake proposal other than to say work was continuing. However, rather than comment about how much South Dakota universities could contribute to the program, he said that the selection of Homestake as the DUSEL site could "enhance our universities and even the K-12 population of students."

South Dakota has neither the history or the current attitude regarding intellectual work that makes it very attractive for intellectual workers. On the other hand, the Colorado higher education corridor offers the physical access to higher education institutions with vigorous research programs, and it offers the intellectual and cultural environment that supports and augments research and intellectual work.

From the standpoint of the people who do the academic research and work, Homestake seems to have been flooded out of contention.

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