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South Dakota's Underground Laboratories

An abandoned gold mine in Lead, South Dakota is rapidly being transformed into a trove of scientific treasure, and the world’s science community—and many American Indian nations—are watching with great interest as the Homestake Mine in the Black Hills evolves into the world’s largest and deepest underground laboratory.

With its 370 miles of tunnels that plunge 1.5 miles beneath the Earth’s surface, it would be easy to imagine secretive scientists in airtight suits studying UFOs and interviewing little green men. Far from that fantasy however, the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake offers the opportunity for nearly every kind of scientist to expand our understanding of the world and even the universe. A team of scientists and engineers, led by the University of California at Berkeley and South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, has been working with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), where scientists will contemplate such things as the power of subatomic particles, carry out experiments on the mysterious substance called dark matter and try to answer questions such as “Why did matter prevail over antimatter” and “What can subatomic particles tell us about the universe?” Although scientists believe dark matter exists, no one has yet been able to offer proof. For anyone who can, a Nobel Prize almost certainly awaits.

Intrigued by the many opportunities provided by this expanding facility, some American Indian leaders in the area are already using it to develop educational programs for their students. “We are working to get kids and young adults interested in the work we are doing here,” said Daryl Russell, DUSEL’s cultural and diversity coordinator and member of the DUSEL-Sanford Lab Cultural Advisory Committee. Russell, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, said the committee advises on policies and initiatives that will fulfill the labs commitment to integrate the diverse cultures of South Dakota into its operation. The committee has contacted a dozen tribes seeking input and expects to reach out to about 40 more tribes in surrounding states.

The Black Hills is a sacred hunting and ceremonial ground that was taken from the Sioux Nation. The discovery of gold, such as that in the former Homestake Mine, is what prompted the multitude of treaty violations the U.S. government has now acknowledged by agreeing that the Sioux are legally entitled to compensation for those transgressions. With that history, some wariness is to be expected, and Russell conceded that some tribal communities are waiting and watching before getting involved with the project. “They want proof their sacred land will be protected and restored,” he said. “We are doing a lot of work to make sure the water leaving the flooded lower levels of the former mine is cleaner than when it came in and any rocks that we move are staying close to the site they originated from.”

Russell’s background is scientific, but he feels very strongly the need to incorporate American Indian cultures in the area. “We are trying to approach the project as a healing to Mother Earth,” he said. “The mine was a rape and plunder of our land and can now be a useful and needful tool for the education of our youth. We have a lot of very bright tribal members who need a venue to move forward into scientific fields.”

George Campbell, chairman of the DUSEL-Sanford Lab Cultural Advisory Committee and retired DUSEL cultural and diversity coordinator, said a campus (experimental workstation) is being planned at the 300-foot level that would possibly allow high school students to participate in experiments. Connie Giroux, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member who graduated from the School of Mines in Rapid City, has been working with junior and senior high school students who are part of the Gear Up Program—Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs—bringing 80 to 100 students at a time to the laboratory to develop experimental programs.

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Giroux was recently designated as the laboratory supervisor for the Majorana Demonstrator Experiment, which will be used to look for the signature of neutrino-less double-beta decay. She is also the laboratory supervisor for the surface lab where the Large Underground Xenon Experiment is located and where a dark matter detector is being built. This experiment will be moved nearly a mile underground in the near future. The two-ton dark-matter detector will be filled with superchilled xenon and placed in a tank of purified water once inside the cavern. “Being a scientist, as well as an American Indian, I have a perspective on both the culture and benefits for science,” Giroux said. “The main cultural benefit is that the lab gives American Indian students the chance to be at the forefront of groundbreaking research. We are developing programs to benefit both our laboratory and tribal colleges and universities. We also want to share the opportunities here with American Indian owned businesses or tribal enterprises if they have a product we can use at the laboratory.”

DUSEL Co-Principal Investigator Dr. William Roggenthen, of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, said, “This is a very great opportunity to increase the science and engineering access for students in this region, as well as potential employees. We want this to be more than an ivory tower for experiments; education and outreach are an obligation we have, and they are very important. Tribal rights have been a key issue in the Black Hills for many years; we are very sensitive to that. We are doing what we can to be environmentally responsible and respectful and to involve as many people as possible from tribal communities.”

In 2000, when the Homestake Mine announced it would be closing, a group of scientists proposed that it be converted into a national underground laboratory. In 2004, the South Dakota legislature committed $14 million to the project, and ponied up another $20 million a year later. By 2006, the state donated the mine to the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA) for use as an underground lab. The SDSTA reopened Homestake after the legislature approved an additional $40 million to refurbish its infrastructure in preparation for the NSF’s proposed national Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory. That June philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated $70 million to the project, with $20 million designated for a Sanford Science Education Center to connect scientists, educators, students and members of the general public both virtually and physically; locally, regionally and throughout the world.

Underground labs are in big demand in the scientific community because the great depth shields experiments from the noise of cosmic radiation. Bill Harlan, communications director for the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake, said some of the most cutting-edge frontier physics is done beneath the ground. According to Giroux, the deepest, largest underground labs are in Japan, Canada and Italy. With waiting lists for experiments, a deep underground lab at Homestake could double the world’s existing underground lab space.

Harlan said the lab employs about 100 people, and of those about 70 are former Homestake employees. “We have a communications department, administrative staff, scientists and engineers; and in addition to that there is the DUSEL collaboration, which employs about 50 people—some in South Dakota and some in Berkeley, California—working on designs for the lab. The former Homestake employees are working on excavating caverns and improving the infrastructure of the lab, in addition to maintaining shafts and tunnels. You can’t just open up this giant hole in the ground and walk away from it. It’s a complicated piece of infrastructure.” There are two main hoists going down to the 4,850-foot level, with elevator cars capable of hauling many thousands of pounds. Additionally, the facility will have a technologically advanced water-treatment plant, which makes water pumped from the bottom of the former mine pure enough to drink.

Harlan said there will be a demand for personnel in research and development occupations for at least the next 30 years. “We want to continue to build relationships with tribes and tribal leaders so we can continue to have a pool of professionals for the careers that we have the potential for.” The Oglala Lakota College and the Sinte Gleska University are geographically the closest American Indian institutions of higher learning, and it is hoped by members of the Cultural Advisory Committee that participation from youth attending these schools will benefit everyone involved. The Sanford Science Education Center will have a unique opportunity to effect change in an area that is economically disadvantaged and underrepresented in science and engineering.

For more than 125 years the Homestake mine was the center of the search for gold in the Black Hills. Although gold is no longer being mined there, something more precious is being extracted from that hole in the ground: jobs, hope, knowledge and opportunity.