Friday, November 4, 2011

Is the alligator still in the swamp?

Dr. Jose Alonso, who served as Director of the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Lead from 2007 to 2009, says he believes that the National Science Foundation will eventually return to support scientific research at the underground lab.
Dr. Jose Alonso (center) visits with guests last Tuesday (11/1/11)
following his program about the Sanford Underground Lab

The NSF pulled the plug early this year, refusing to authorize any more funds for the operation.  It was just four years ago that NSF announced that if a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory is built anywhere, it will be at the old Homestake Mine.

“That was the alligator in the swamp,” Alonso told a gathering at the Spearfish Area Historical Society this week (11/1/11) during their November meeting at the Senior Citizen’s Center.

When the NSF ceased funding the project, their governing body -- the National Science Board -- asserted that “the NSF had no business running a large laboratory,” said Alonso.  And there were lingering fears that the deep underground lab might not be built.

“And given the fiscal climate of the time, that made it a lot easier for them to cut more than $800 million from their budget,” he said, demonstrating to Congress that they had done their share in paring down government programs.

Fortunately, with some encouragement, the U.S. Department of  Energy stepped into the void and expressed considerable interest in the kinds of large experiments planned at the Sanford Lab.  Things like the LUX program, digging into the world of so-called “dark matter,” and the Majorana neutrino project.

Ray Davis, Jr. won a Nobel Prize in 2002
Unlike NSF, the Department of Energy has experience running large laboratories and hosting large experimental programs.  And Alonso said that he believes NSF will one day return to support some activities at the lab, albeit at a more modest level.

Alonso gave the Spearfish group a brief outline of the Sanford Lab, dating back to the to 1962 when Homestake Mine built a cavern at the 4,850 foot level to allow scientist Ray Davis an opportunity to conduct research on solar neutrinos – research that led to his receiving a Nobel Prize in 2002. Homestake sold the mine to Barrick Corporation, which eventually closed the mine in 2001.

By 2006, Barrick elected to donate the mine to the State of South Dakota, which formed the South Dakota Science and Technology Administration and began pursuit of a new and larger scientific mission.  The donations helped jump start a new future for the mine, which covers 186 surface acres and more than 370 miles of underground drifts in the Lead area.  Fourteen shafts and winzes were included.

The state pumped $40 million into the project, and businessman T. Denny Sanford of Sioux Falls committed another $70 million.

Alonso’s PowerPoint presentation provided society members with a good insight into the myriad of rehabilitative work done during his two-year period at the Sanford Lab.  That included bringing the hoists up to standard and “de-watering” the mine, which had become inundated up to the 4,500 foot level.   That chore has required an extensive pumping system at four different stations.  There are two sets of 700 horsepower motors that can pump 1,500 gallons per minute each.   In addition to that array of pumps, another submersible pump is installed at the 7,800 foot level.

Approximately 3 million gallons of water are pumped from the mine each day, creating what more than a few tourists have thought is yet another natural Black Hills waterfall near the old mine!

Alonso acknowledged that there was probably “too much ballyhooing” about the perceived immediate economic impact of the deep underground mine upon the Lead area, but he thinks the long-term impact – providing jobs for graduates of South Dakota universities – will be a very positive thing.

Following Alonso’s presentation, members and guests enjoyed a tasty table of treats provided by Marcia Darland and Glen Nicholas and served by Norma Landsberger.  Members  were advised of the new History of the Grace Balloch Memorial Library booklet published by the Friends of the Library.  Authored by Paul Higbee, the histories are available at the checkout counter of the library.

Higbee will team up next month with Billy Evans to give an encore presentation of the Spearfish Irrigation System.  That program will take place at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, December 6 at the Senior Citizen’s Center.  Guests are welcome and encouraged to become members!