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Homestake washout

One week after the National Science Foundation chose the former Homestake gold mine in Lead, S.D., as its top proposed site for the National Underground Science Lab (NUSL), mine owner Barrick Corporation turned off the pumps in the deepest parts of the mine. Now, the 8,500-foot-deep mine will slowly fill with water.

Congress had provided Barrick $10 million to maintain the mine and keep the pumps running. But, according to an Associated Press interview with South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, Barrick did not want to be accused of taking “corporate welfare.” Vince Borg, vice president of public affairs at Barrick, says that the shutdown was always a part of the plan to properly decommission the mine. “It’s been flooded before and can become dewatered again,” if the NUSL plan becomes a reality at Homestake, Borg says.

Barrick Corporation shut down the pumps at the Homestake mine in Lead, S.D., on June 10, compromising plans for a future underground lab. Photo courtesy of Barrick Gold.

Brian McPherson, hydrologist at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, says that the move to shut down the pumps is a real disappointment to the scientific community. “‘Baseline’ hydrologic and thermal conditions that developed and stabilized during the past century were destroyed when the pumps were shut down. So, the bottom line is we really do not know what is happening at depth, both hydrologically and thermally, and it will not be cheap or easy to determine what is the state of flux,” he says.

The flooding at depth will particularly damage geomicrobiological research opportunities, McPherson adds. “This may mean a much tougher road lies ahead for Homestake becoming the new NUSL.” The NSF site panel report, released May 28, had ranked the Homestake mine as a more favorable site for conducting science and engineering than the two other lead sites: a San Jacinto Mountain site near Palm Springs, Calif., and the Soudan Mine near Tower, Minn. These sites are now under much greater consideration than they were prior to the June 10 pump shutdown.

Lisa M. Pinsker


Physics and Earth Science Go Underground, Geotimes, February 2003

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