Mining for progress, but watch that canary

South Dakota State Roundup

Published January 1, 2004  | January 2004 issue

With the Homestake Mine empty and now flooding, state officials are trying to push along the process that may convert it to a national physics laboratory. The former gold mine in Lead is the preferred location for a National Science Foundation (NSF) project to study neutrinos deep underground, free from cosmic ray interference. But interference from legal roadblocks has also proven challenging.

The owners of the mine, Barrick Gold Corp. of Toronto, spent $65 million cleaning up the site and insisted upon receiving protection from future environmental liability. They also want the NSF to approve construction of the lab before they transfer ownership. In June, the company stopped pumping water from the shafts saying the $300,000 monthly cost was too high. That led to flooding and sparked protests by scientists who claimed it would endanger the site.

In mid-December Gov. Mike Rounds announced he would seek $10 million from the state Legislature for construction early next year, to be matched by a $10 million federal grant. The remainder of the estimated $115 million for lab construction would be financed by bonds, to be repaid by the NSF. The state is also finishing a plan to release Barrick of liability, at a cost of $5 million for insurance.

Officials at Barrick made statements hinting they were near a deal to transfer the property, but that is still contingent on approval from the NSF, which must deal with internal politics and decide whether to commit to spending $20 million annually over five years to cover the bond. Rounds hopes his funding plan will convince them to go ahead.

Joe Mahon