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Turning a Gold Mine into a Physics Lab - 2002-02-25

When the Homestake Mining Company decided to shut down its money-losing gold mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota two years ago, the firm thought it had found a perfect way out. The California-based company agreed to donate the abandoned mine to the state for use as a national physics laboratory provided the company could be exempted from any future liabilities arising from the site.

South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle was happy to oblige. He introduced legislation in the U.S. Congress to indemnify Homestake. The Senate measure would put the $50 million cost for cleaning up the mine and the estimated $500 million tab for building the underground laboratory on American taxpayers. But another South Dakota lawmaker Congressman John Thune wasn't happy with the Senate's Homestake deal. He introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to provide better protection for taxpayers - and the environment in the transfer of the Homestake mine. Now, the international precious metals company wants to cancel the deal.

But during a tour of the 2,500 meter deep mine shaft, reporter Jim Kent found Homestake isn't the only party with an interest in the future of the 125-year-old mine.

When Homestake fired off 1,600 kilograms of ammonium nitrate on December 12, it was the last time the company would move a ton of rock for an average return of just five and a half grams of gold. With market prices declining and the cost of operating the mine skyrocketing, Homestake announced it would officially close its South Dakota site on December 31, 2001.

Homestake began its operations in 1876 two years after Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's troops discovered gold in the Black Hills. The mine has yielded more than one billion grams of gold. Billions of dollars in profit have showered everyone from the company itself to the countless purveyors of "Original Black Hills Gold" jewelry that crowd the area for a hundred kilometers in any direction. But all that has come to an end. On the small, open train that brings us back to the elevator, that will take us to the surface, second-generation miner Gerald Grosek says he's not happy about leaving his job of 28 years. But the thought that the mine will be put to use as a science lab does ease the pain. "Oh, it's a great thing," he says. "I think the possibilities educational-wise and discovering new applications in physics...I think that's wonderful in the way it's going to help our society. I think that's great."

"There's an enormous variety of things that will go on. The experiments that I've been involved with have been looking at neutrinos coming from the center of the sun" says Kenneth Lande, Professor of Physics at the University of Pennsylvania, one of a group of scientists who sees the mine as the perfect place to study neutrinos subatomic particles produced inside the sun. Examining them in an environment free from cosmic rays such as a 2500-meter deep mine will permit research that could lead to advances in everything from national security to... "…Computer memories," he says. "High-speed memories are also affected by cosmic rays. And so every once in a while a cosmic ray will go through a computer memory and change its content, which means that that produces an error for the computer. If you take those same memories and put them deep underground and they're shielded those errors don't occur. And so one foresees the possibility of development of new higher speed memories in the underground environment." Of course, not everyone sees the science lab or even the mine's existence as something positive. To the Lakota Sioux, a Native American tribe with ancient ties to the region, the opening of the mine violated the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which set aside the Black Hills for the Lakota in perpetuity.

Author and environmentalist Charmaine White Face says her people have always been concerned about the mine for many reasons. "The one that we could publicly talk about is that the Black Hills are sacred and there should have been no gold mining in the first place," she says. "And for them to continue to use this mine in a way that is, again, very against our beliefs, our philosophical, theological beliefs, is just appalling. The very act of building the mine, it's like digging in.... you're creating a wound, a major wound into Mother Earth. And that wound has become infected by the mining, by the cyanide, by all of the water that seeps through from rain and goes into the mine and then goes into the underground water."

Charmaine White Face says she is even more dismayed by the fact that this wound in the earth might become completely filled with toxic water if the science lab isn't built once the pumps that keep the mine's normal water flow at bay are turned off.

Attorney Jay Tuchton represents two South Dakota environmental groups that are also concerned about water. They object to any deal that permits Homestake to close the mine without providing the public something. Mr. Tuchton says it would be easier to accept the $50 million cleanup costs if Homestake would hand over two power plants that have kept nearby Spearfish Creek dry for decades. "Homestake would have been relieved of millions of dollars of cleanup cost that would have gone on for decades, if not centuries," he says. "The thing that's sort of galling to me is that Homestake, while the public is absorbing a huge amount of expense for it, is giving up nothing that the 'common public' can appreciate. It's not giving up any of its surface real estate it owns thousands of acres of land there that could have been given for open space you know, to the Forest Service. It owns water rights in local rivers and streams that could have been used to preserve fish and wildlife and sort of compensate for 125 years of environmental harm. But, instead, all the public gets is a tunnel."

According to Homestake attorney Pat Garver, the transfer of that "tunnel" will not take place unless the Congressional legislation is amended to protect the company from future liabilities that may occur once the site becomes a physics lab.

As South Dakota's political leaders continue to negotiate the project with Homestake, Congressman Thune says that protecting the American taxpayer and the environment are at the top of his list of priorities. "And what we tried to do on the House (of Representatives) side is insure that not only is it a workable thing for the mine, workable obviously for the project and for the National Science Foundation, but also provide some stronger protections for the taxpayers of this country who under the legislation would assume liability for any environmental issues in the future," he says. "I think that in the end this was crafted in a way that this provides the additional, the safeguards that are necessary, and allows the project to move forward. And we think that it ends up being a win-win for everybody involved."

Standing Rock Sioux tribal councilman Jess Taken Alive says that Native Americans have been left out of the negotiations. He offered another solution should the situation remain at a stalemate. "It would be good for them to transfer it over to the owners, and that would be the Lakota / Dakota peoples," he says.

Taken Alive says if the mine were returned to the Lakota people, they would allow the land to go back to its natural state.