Saturday, October 25, 2014
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South Dakota proposes underground lab

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The Homestake mine could soon be a national lab. Governor Mike Rounds wants to call a special session to get funding for the project (Image courtesy Homestake Mining Company)
South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds says he'll call a special legislative session this fall to fund a state underground laboratory. Rounds has reached an agreement with the owners of an abandoned gold mine in the Black Hills for the state to take ownership. Rounds is asking for almost $20 million for the lab. The Homestake mine is one of two locations being considered for a national research lab.

Sioux Falls, S.D. — The agreement between Homestake and the state of South Dakota is several years in the making. Homestake stopped mining gold and closed down about four years ago. Even then, turning it into a national underground laboratory to study physics and earth sciences, was a state priority. The National Science Foundation will choose between the Homestake mine and the Henderson mine in Colorado as home for a national lab. The state's interim lab will be about a mile deep and the national lab will go another mile down.

Gov. Mike Rounds says he'll ask lawmakers for one time money from the general fund to pay for the interim lab. Rounds says rather than asking if the state can afford this the question should be if the state can afford not to.

"We could continue to be a commodity producing state. And that means we get paid for what people want to give us for our corn for our wheat and our cattle," says Rounds. "But if we want to change and be a state where young people come and learn and where they share their talents and where our young people can come and literally develop their minds and meet great scientists and work with them and learn from them then now is the opportunity," he says.

Jerry Apa, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, lives near the mine. He says some lawmakers question the wisdom of spending money for a special session when money for a lab could be appropriated in January. He says the lab needs to open so the National Science Foundation knows the state is serious.

"When you go into a special session you're addressing one issue and one issue only and everybody would be focused on that," says Apa.

Apa says scientists are lining up to get into the underground lab.

Marvin Marshak, University of Minnesota Physicist, says while there are many underground labs, including the Tower Soudan Mine in Minnesota, there aren't any that go as deep as Homestake. He says even the first level lab at a mile deep is unique. Marshak say physicists need to go deep under ground for isolation.

"We want to get away from it all. Particularly away from things called cosmic rays which naturally come down from the sky and we want to use the earth itself as a shield," says Marshak. "But there are also people who want to study the earth. They are the geo-scientists and they want to study the rocks and the water they want to study even the life that exists deep underground. And this laboratory this national deep underground science and engineering laboratory will really serve both kinds of needs," he says.

Marshak studies neutrinos, the tiniest particles in the universe. He says by understanding these particles and how they give the sun its power is one of the keys to understanding the basic ways that matter and energy interact in the universe. But he says the experiments that go on in a lab deep in hills of South Dakota will have an impact on the economy and the state's children.

"When you look at sort of the high tech engineering and science world there's really not much going on in the western part of the Dakotas and I think that this kind of lab really is almost a beacon of the future in telling the people of South Dakota particularly the kids of South Dakota that yes they can participate in 21st century science and engineering in their home state," says Marshak.

Governor Rounds has not set a date for a special session. He says that once funding for the state lab is approved construction will begin immediately.

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