Lawmakers approve funds for laboratory

Lawmakers approve funds for laboratory
South Dakota could be one step closer to having the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead chosen as the site for a National Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory.

The National Science Foundation ultimately will determine the location and has narrowed the choices to South Dakota and a site in Henderson, CO.

To help move that process along Gov. Mike Rounds convened a special session of the South Dakota Legislature Oct. 14 so lawmakers could approve seed money for a 4,850-foot deep lab that could begin enticing scientists to the Black Hills as soon as 2007.

The money would go to the Science and Technology Authority, the entity coordinating the mine's conversion to a science lab, and would pay for operating and construction costs of the 4,850-foot lab.

Rounds also asked lawmakers to approve transferring ownership of the lab from the Barrick Gold Corporation to the Science and Technology Authority. Ownership will transfer 30 days after title work; surveys, plats, permits and the final contract are done.

The Senate voted 32-2, with the House voting 66-4 to approve the money and ownership transfer.

If South Dakota gets the DUSEL designation that lab would be built at the 7,400-foot level of the 8,000-foot deep mine.

The state needed to transfer ownership so scientists could list Homestake as the site on experiment proposals they submit for funding. Barrick also wanted an indication that South Dakota had the funding to build and operate the 4,850-foot lab, Rounds said.

Once experiments start at the 4,850-foot lab Rounds said that would show the National Science Foundation that Homestake is a good site.

Similar labs in other states have generated between 2,200 to 8,000 jobs per facility with budgets of up to $2.2 billion.

"We can make it happen in South Dakota too," Rounds said.

The governor highlighted the educational benefits of having a world-class underground laboratory in the state. The lab would provide more research opportunities for students to participate in the kind of study they'd have to leave the state today to pursue.

After hearing a presentation by scientists pushing for the Homestake DUSEL designation, Rounds said a student at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion was able to get an internship at the Brookhaven Lab in Upton, NY.

"Think of how many other students that have the capabilities never had the opportunity,"Rounds said. "It's time to make a change."

Dr. Kevin Lesko, the principal investigator for the Homestake project, told lawmakers during a committee hearing on the funding and ownership transfer legislation that the Homestake Lab would allow the science community to pursue science where it can't be done right now.

"We want to advance knowledge into new models of physics," he said.

Other scientific fields also want to use an underground lab for experiments, Lesko said. Earth scientists want to understand the limits of life � how deep can it live, Lesko said. They want to understand the rock itself and how substances flow through it. They also want to study how fast water is naturally replenished.

"All of those things can be approached in a facility where you have the long-term ability to do experiments," Lesko said.

The more scientists that use the lab the more efficient it is, Rounds said.

The greatest benefit from the project is education, Lesko said.

"We're training the minds of the future," he said.

The state will take the $19.9 million lawmakers approved during the special session from the general fund, which is basically the state's checking account, said Jason Dilges of the Bureau of Finance and Management.

The Science and Technology Authority currently has $15.7 million in state and federal funds it will use for operating expenses, maintaining the physical integrity of the mine and purchasing insurance. Rounds estimated it would cost $35.6 million to fund the 4,850-foot lab until 2012. Part of that money will be used to solicit experiments. If South Dakota isn't picked for the DUSEL, by 2012 that money will revert back to the state.

South Dakota currently carries a structural deficit of about $17.5 million. The state uses its $130 million in reserve funds to balance the budget at the end of the year, Dilges said. The $19.9 million would be added to that amount.

Rounds told lawmakers that no money would be spent until the state had commitments from scientists that they would bring their experiments to the lab.

Rep. Jim Putnam, R-Armour, is the House chair of the state budget committee. He said he was concerned that lawmakers would have oversight of the money they approved. The Science and Technology Authority is an entity held separate from state government so the state can be insulated from any liability that could result in the mine transition.

Towards the end of the special session Rounds gave lawmakers a letter pledging he would give quarterly reports of the authority's activities and follow all the laws governing the authority.

Lawmakers had many questions about Rounds' proposal for the lab, Putnam said. Not all of them were answered to their satisfaction, but the letter put many of their fears at ease.

"I give him (Rounds) an absolute congratulations for that," Putnam said. "It puts the taxpayer at ease and the Legislature at ease."

Sen. Frank Kloucek, D-Scotland, questioned whether the lab could contain high levels of radioactivity or other environmental dangers. Steve Pirner, secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said more than 1,000 water samples were taken from several areas in the mine. The samples showed no underground contamination.

There was arsenic in the water but that's expected in an area where gold existed. He also said fuel and coolant was emptied from equipment left in the mine when it closed.

Other lawmakers argued that K-12 education isn't adequately funded now and that situation should be fixed before money is put into the lab.

Rep. Mike Kroger, D-Dell Rapids, said his district in Dell Rapids is facing several school opt outs of the state property tax limits.

"I think we need to get our priorities straight," he said. "I think we need to fund schools properly first."

Rounds repeatedly told lawmakers about the economic and educational benefits the lab would bring to South Dakota in the form of jobs in the lab and supporting the facility, internship possibilities for South Dakota students, and an increase in the state's research possibilities.

"We're talking about making an improvement in our future and our children's future," he said.

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