LEAD - On Tuesday, a crew entered the underground tunnels of the Homestake gold mine in Lead and began the two-day process of turning off the water pumps.

Although it is a momentous step in the years-long process of shutting down the mine that for a century was synonymous with Black Hills gold mining, the end to water-pumping does not bring doom and gloom to a proposed underground science lab, the governor and the mine's owner said.

Gov. Mike Rounds said he is on track with plans to have the matter before Congress by December.

"They (Barrick) have indicated a willingness to move forward. Our timeline is pretty aggressive," Rounds said.

And Barrick Gold Corp. spokesman Vince Borg said the mine's infrastructure, including its pumps, is antiquated and unsafe.

"It needs to be updated and replaced in time," Borg said.

In time for what?

"Hopefully, in time for the lab when it becomes real and is funded and constructed," Borg said.

Scientists and South Dakota's elected leaders hope to turn the idled 8,000-foot-deep gold mine into a national underground lab, largely to study subatomic particles called neutrinos. The granite at the mine would filter out background radiation, which is necessary for such study.

Construction of a lab inside the mine depends on Barrick's willingness to donate the property to the state of South Dakota. The Toronto-based company's willingness to donate the property relies on protection from future liability.

Last week, Rounds outlined a plan he believes would allow the state to cover the company through an insurance policy. On Monday, South Dakota's congressional delegation asked Barrick officials for a detailed list of what it would take to transfer the property.

Borg declined to lay out a timeline for when Barrick officials might present their specific requests to the delegation. He said the company had been reluctant to discuss such details until a National Science Foundation advisory panel issued a report naming the Homestake mine as the best site for an underground lab.

"Now that the NSF has announced the Homestake site as being the best site by far, we can turn our attention and energies to important issues like that," Borg said, referring to transfer of the property.

Barrick officials will negotiate with both the congressional delegation and with Gov. Rounds, Borg said.

"We will sort out those issues as expeditiously as possible. We have a good relationship with the governor in particular," he said.

The tone taken by the governor and Barrick is markedly different from that of scientists backing the project. Last week, University of Washington physicist Wick Haxton said he would look for a new site for an underground lab if Barrick turned off the water pumps as promised.

Haxton told The New York Times that the flooding would cause an array of damage, including possible structural damage to the mine's granite tunnels. Haxton was in Italy on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

World-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking signed on to a June 9 letter urging Barrick to keep the pumps working.

"As senior members of the science community, we ask Barrick to find a way to continue pumping in the Homestake Mine. We urge Barrick to consider accepting the funding that Congress has appropriated for this purpose," reads the letter, which refers to a $10 million federal grant set aside for the mine/lab.

For more information, visit http://int.phys.washington. edu/NUSEL/

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Borg said he welcomed the letter signed by 17 prominent scientists as a sign of growing support for turning the mine into a world-class lab. However, Borg said he doubts the scientists understand the cost, logistical complexity and safety hazards involved in keeping the mine's infrastructure operating so crews could maintain the underground pumps indefinitely.

"They're expressing a preference and view without having the benefit of knowing the state of the systems and antiquated nature of a lot of them at a 125-year-old mine," Borg said. "I don't think they've individually or collectively taken the time - not any of them has been in touch with us directly - to learn first hand the state of the systems and infrastructure of the mine."

Rounds said he believes that scientists' worry that polluted water trickling down through the mine would contaminate the facility for the study of microbial life could be overstated.

"If it's a matter of concern about pollution or water coming in, part of the plan is to literally move over and dig into virgin territory. So if there's interest in pursuing those experiments in virgin territory, that's workable yet," Rounds said.

Other proposed scientific study would be unaffected by the water, Rounds said.

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation is trying to remain neutral in its review of the mine as a potential lab.

NSF spokesman Curt Suplee said the agency stands ready to accept a new round of proposals from scientists for a lab at Homestake. An NSF advisory panel reviewed a set of proposals for labs at three sites and last month chose Homestake as "by far" the best site for such a lab.

Whether there is water filling the mine won't be an issue for the NSF officially until the costs to build a lab are being reviewed, he said.

Contact Denise Ross at 394-8438 or denise.ross@rapidcityjournal.com

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