Despite donation, lab at Homestake is uncertain

Despite donation, lab at Homestake is uncertain
Money and timing will play a big role in determining whether the former Homestake Gold Mine at Lead will someday become a world-class underground laboratory.

There's a third factor that comes into play, too – one that none of us can do little about.

Science.


The generous $70 million donation from Sioux Falls philanthropist Denny Sanford to the project, nor the fortunate timing of the agreement made by Sanford and state officials – including Rounds and South Dakota Science & Technology Authority executive director Dave Snyder – on the terms of Sanford's gift within the past few weeks certainly gave a boost to everyone who is working hard to locate the lab at Homestake.

That fortunate timing gave scientists working with the authority time to include Sanford's gift – and details of what it could mean to the development of the lab – in a crucial conceptual design report sent to the National Science Foundation last week.

However, all of this good news by means clinches the project for us. There still is no guarantee that South Dakota will host the laboratory, Snyder said. The science foundation will make that determination based on thoughtful examination of which location is best for scientific research, he said in a recent news report.

Sanford's announcement does take some steam out of the arguments against locating the lab here in South Dakota.

Those arguments – including the fact that part of the old Homestake Mine is flooded and some of the hoist equipment in the shafts is outdated � could become factors as NSF experts examine the conceptual design reports sent in last week by South Dakota and Colorado, the two states vying to host the laboratory.

The timing of the Sanford announcement, three days after the deadline for submitting those reports, could further enhance the benefits to South Dakota. Because if Colorado responds to the $70 million Sanford promise by finding a donor or donors to match or exceed it, that information will be missing from the Henderson Mine conceptual design report submitted last week.

"I'm comfortable that we have a very complete conceptual design report," Snyder told the Rapid City Journal. "But I don't want it to seem like we think we have this thing won. It's still the decision of the scientific community what they want to do. Our objective is to remove as many questions about unknowns as possible."

Sanford's money, when added to a pool of $36 million in state and federal funds to help fund lab operation, could help do that. It could also drive the development of an interim underground laboratory at the 4,850-foot level that could provide a home for cutting-edge scientific experiments for five to 10 years.

Meanwhile, the state and the NSF would work and wait to see if and when to go deeper, to the 7,400-foot level, Snyder said.

Sanford's donation depends first on the NSF selecting Homestake as the site of the laboratory and second on the foundation committing $10 million in grants to research projects at the lab.

If the science foundation selects Homestake, it would give the science authority a grant � likely $1 million or more – for a more detailed design study. While that study proceeds, the authority could begin working on the interim lab, Snyder said.

With the first $35 million from Sanford, the state could improve the hoists in the two mine shafts, upgrade the mine's electrical system and create laboratory sites at the 4,850-foot level. That could open the possibility of limited scientific research beginning there in late 2007 or early 2008.

The state plans to spend another $20 million from the Sanford donation to build a world-class science center above ground at the site, with the potential to attract students and instructors from around the world.

The last $15 million would go to prepare the 7,400-foot site, including pumping water down from the current level of 6,200 feet to about 8,000 feet.

But that could be 10 years away, because the technology isn't ready for experiments at that level, Snyder said. He said virtually any underground scientific experiment in the world right now could be completed at 4,850 feet.

The only underground science laboratory that is deeper than 4,850 feet is the 6,800-foot-deep Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Laboratory in Ontario, Canada.

Snyder is hoping for a favorable decision by NSF later this year. But there are other possibilities, including giving both states grant money to provide more detailed design reports, he said.

Some uncertainties still exist. It would be a mistake to believe the issue is settled.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at david.lias@plaintalk.net

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