Saturday, November 21, 2009

Homestake -- it's not over

Long an economic powerhouse for the region, Homestake Mine operated for more than 125 years and was the deepest – and most productive – gold mine in North America. It closed its doors in 2002. With the people of South Dakota as new owners and an eye on science, the once prolific gold mine has started a transformation that – if and when completed – promises to make it a top-flight international research laboratory.

The game isn’t over,” says Dr. Jose Alonso, a nuclear astrophysicist who spent 30 years at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California before heading up the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake. He is now director emeritus.

One should be aware that the game isn’t over yet. The fine print on the selection was…IF the underground lab is going to be built in the United States, it will be built at Homestake.”

Alonso said the $15 million set aside to prepare a Preliminary Design Report isn’t nearly enough. Some $500 million will be needed to actually build the lab, with about half of that amount going for infrastructure – the rest for experiments. It’ll likely be some three years before we know if Congress will actually appropriate the funds for the project.

But that point didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a couple of dozen folks who filled a downstairs room at the Adams Museum in Deadwood last Thursday (11/19/09). The museum strutted its stuff by hosting a terrific double-barreled presentation that focused on both the past and the future of Homestake. Author Steven Mitchell and scientist Dr. Jose Alonso teamed up with The Adams, the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission, and Black Hills State University to present an all-afternoon presentation called “Homestake: Its Past and Its Future.”

With an impressive array of incisive historical research and compelling photographic images, Mitchell set the stage with a journey into both the history of the peoples and the geology of the Black Hills region. A life-long resident of the Black Hills, Mitchell holds degrees from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, but he belied his academic training and career as a mining engineer by demonstrating a gift for storytelling based on well-documented facts.

Reaching back to the Treaty of 1851 that sought to settle tribal territorial disputes and stabilize the precarious relations between the American Indians and westward-migrating settlers, Mitchell also shared details about the Great Reconnaissance Act of 1853 to explore the west, primarily in search of routes for expanding rail transportation. With the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 came an onslaught of entrepreneurs, many of whom became the stuff of legends.

Homestake Mine is the focus of Mitchell’s new book, Nuggets to Neutrinos: The Homestake Story. From early mining claims and extraction techniques to wily business strategies and modern technology, Mitchell seemed to cover all bases right up to the closure of the mine. He discussed several significant reclamation projects that have occurred in recent years, laying the groundwork for development of a deep underground science and engineering laboratory.

After a short intermission, the focus moved from the past to the future. Dr. Jose Alonso talked about the transition of Homestake, providing a chronology of the scientific and political maneuvering that have occurred in the last few years. Once a director of the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake, he remains a champion for the project and serves as emeritus director.

Alonso walked the audience step-by-step through the “bureaucratic” solicitation process that proponents of the underground lab have followed in seeking approval for funding from the National Science Foundation.

In 2006, between the political advocacy of Governor Mike Rounds and a $70 million gift from the deep pockets of T. Denny Sanford, Homestake had “stacked the deck” against its challenger, Henderson Mine in Colorado. Barrick donated the mine – 186 surface acres – to the State of South Dakota, and Homestake had secured a $120 million war chest that could be spent to get things going early. This was an enormous advantage for Homestake – giving them a three or four year head start. It was a very enviable position in the pursuit of a world-class underground laboratory. And Alonso said there was something else that made Homestake more attractive to scientists.

Henderson is an operating molybdenum mine… and continues to operate…and it’s very clear when you are there, even as a guest, their first interest – bottom line – is mining. So you are really a second class citizen there. You have certain case times, you have certain things you can do, certain things you cannot do. You have little control over schedule, resources, or anything else.

Over here (Homestake), science owns the mine. And that is huge.”

By July of 2007, the National Science Foundation endorsed a recommendation from a 22-member independent panel that tapped Homestake as the site for a University of California-Berkeley design proposal for a DUSEL (Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory).

Alonso laid out the NSF timetable for awarding the $500 million to actually build the underground laboratory, noting that much more than $15 million is needed for the preliminary design phase – to be completed next year – probably something on the order of $75 million. With a final approval from NSF expected in May 2011, the $500 million project would have to be funded by Congress, and it would likely be a part of the federal FY 2013 budget request. That would require Congressional approval by about October of 2012.

If the costly and somewhat complicated funding process is a bit confusing – it pales compared to the esoteric but significant science projects on the drawing boards. In fact, early science projects are already being planned or are underway. Dr. Alonso’s animated enthusiasm for the projects may not have been enough to keep a few of us luddites in the audience on the edge of our seats, but many of the late afternoon hangers-on were themselves scientists or budding researchers, anxious to talk science with the dynamic Doctor Alonso.

Even using lay terminology, Alonso’s efforts to shine a light of nuclear astrophysics knowledge into the dark recesses of a few unscientific minds in the audience was probably fruitless. But his unrestricted enthusiasm and lively exchanges with tekkies in the audience was almost mesmerizing. “Fuzzy science” took on a somewhat different meaning as the good doctor covered the scientific landscape all the way from the “Coulomb Barrier” and “Gamow Peak” (which are not remote holiday getaways) all the way to “Neutrino Double Beta Decay!” And we’re still in the dark regarding planned “Dark Matter” experiments.

Nonetheless, this was a rare afternoon of enlightenment – even if much of the scientific gobbledy-gook flew over the head of this History major.

We’d gladly camp out on the doorstep of the Adams Museum for the opportunity to participate in another such session. For Mary Kopco and the folks at The Adams Museum and House, it was another excellent event – helping to inform and inspire area residents about the wealth of history and resources in the Black Hills. Resources that will one day likely include a fully-operational, world class deep underground laboratory.

And then it really won’t be over. It’ll be just the beginning.