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Tuesday, November 28, 2006


That whooshing sound is Homestake being flushed out of contention

Homestake Mine

The news came during Thanksgiving weekend. The water collecting in the 8,000-foot deep Homestake Goldmine has reached the 5,600-foot level.

Doug Wiken at Dakota Today has posted on the matter. He cites the water as an example of mismanagement by the party in power.

Barrick Gold, who recently turned over the mine to the State of South Dakota, stalled in the negotiations to turn the mine over to the state for development as the site of the Deep Underground Science and Engineerng Laboratory. Barrick wanted to be assured that it would have no environmental liabilities if it turned the mine over to the state. The state did not want to get stuck with any huge environmental problems. And so, the negotiations seem stalled at times, and Barrick turned off the pumps that keep the mine dry. Barrick said it would be less costly to pump the mine out once plans for a laboratory were set than to keep them running. However, the scientists who originally promoted turning the old gold mine into an underground laboratory were more concerned about the possibility of doing any more science in the mine. The scientific community, as reported in the Whyfiles , thought "A waterlogged mine would be useless as a research vessel, but clearing it out would take years and millions of dollars. It would also stall the project that scientists are already restless to get moving."

Physicist Wick Haxton of the University of Washington led the group of physicists who had near-unanimous support from their colleagues throughout the U.S. and Canada for the proposal to convert Homestake into a national underground laboratory. But when the pumps were turned off, he said, "Our fondest hope is that [the proposal] will go through before water reaches 7400 foot level, where we do our major work.

As of this month, that level was under 1800 feet of water.

Water in the Homestake Mine was reported by the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority to be at the 5600 foot level as of November 6.

Shortly after the pumps were turned off, Haxton and the large majority of
his physicist colleagues abandoned the Homestake plan and started looking for other places to do their scientific research and experiments.

The National Science Foundation, which will select the site where the federal money for an underground lab will go, kept hopes for Homestake alive when it designated Homestake and Henderson Mine in Colorado as the finalists in the selection process. Extensive plans for the construction of a national underground laboratory are due from each of the sites on January 9.

In early October, I had a chance to visit the Henderson site and people from the academic and scientific communities who support it. As I explained then (October 9 archives) the Henderson site lacks some of the potential of Homestake. But it has the active interest and support of its academic community and within a few hours drive, researchers and their
families have access to the resources of the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the Colorado School of Mines, and the 3-institution Auraria Campus in Denver. In addition, Henderson has a professor-scientist led group, the Colorado Alliance for Underground Science and Engineering, and a more diverse group called the Arapahoe Project working to develop and promote the site.

A crucial factor to be decided in the selection process is the level of local expertise and support that each site can muster. The South Dakota higher education community appears not to be involved in the Homestake project at all. Many scientists who once promoted Homestake now dismiss it as something of a hare-brained economic development scheme. In contrast, Colorado has institutions and personnel who are consulted, who are interested, and who are ready to begin work at the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory the minute they are given the go ahead.

As stated, Homestake has geological potential that is unmatched in the U.S. But other places have the human resources, talent, and academic interest that weighs heavier and heavier as the water inches up in the abandoned mine shafts at Homestake.

Among the DUSEL supporters, the advice is that Homestake is a long shot at this point. The rising waters seem to be washing it out of contention. South Dakota simply has never demonstrated the respect and interest for higher education and research that is an increasingly important factor in deciding where the DUSEL should be located.

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