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FYI Number 42: April 9, 2002

Homestake Mine Update

It is not often that a proposal for a physics facility becomes entangled in a high-stakes Senate race. That is, however, the position of a plan to build an underground physics laboratory in South Dakota's Black Hills. The contemplated laboratory has attracted the attention of the White House, Senate leaders, the House Science Committee chairman, and several national newspapers, including a recent front page article in The Washington Post.

What sets this project apart is The Homestake Mine Conveyance Act of 2001, provisions of which were incorporated into the FY 2002 defense appropriations legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush. The legislation provides for the donation of the now-closed 8,000 foot deep gold mine for use as an underground laboratory if the United States assumes undetermined potential liability concerning the mine or the operation of the laboratory. This donation, under the provisions of Public Law 107-117 "shall be effective contingent on approval by the National Science Board and the making of an award by the National Science Foundation for the establishment of the laboratory at the Mine."

Much of the press coverage about this legislation has mentioned the Senate race in South Dakota this fall. Current Senator Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) and Rep. John Thune (R- South Dakota) are seeking voter recognition for their efforts to locate the laboratory in the mine. With control of the Senate so closely divided, both parties on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are looking for deciding factors.

The Homestake provisions were included in the defense appropriations bill last December, and so were not subject to a separate roll call vote. Senator Christopher Bond (R- Missouri) commented, ". . . I believe in deferring to the scientific expertise and judgement of the NSF and its Science Board in determining which projects had scientific merit and deserved funding. The Congress should not be in the business of legislating what is scientifically meritorious. The Homestake legislation totally circumvents the merit review process long-established and followed by the agency. The reality of the matter is that the South Dakota Senators are using NSF as a means to save jobs that will be lost from the closing of the mine. While I appreciate the effort to save people's jobs, it should not be done by undermining the scientific merit review process." Bond is the Ranking Minority Member of the Senate VA, HUD, Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds NSF.

In reply, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) stated: "This important legislation will enable the construction of a new, world-class scientific research facility deep in the Homestake Mine in Lead, SD. Not only will this facility create an opportunity for critical breakthroughs in physics and other fields, it will provide unprecedented new economic and educational opportunities for South Dakota." He continued, "Earlier this year, I met with several of these scientists to determine how they planned to move forward. They told me they intended to submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a grant to construct the laboratory. After a thorough peer review, the National Science Foundation would determine whether or not it would be in the best interests of science and the United States for such a laboratory to be built. The scientists also explained that since the National Science Foundation normally does not own research facilities, the mine would need to be conveyed from Homestake Mining Company to the State of South Dakota for construction to take place. For the company to be willing to donate the property, and for the state to be willing to accept it, both would require the Federal Government to assume some of the liability associated with the property."

Daschle explained, "The purpose of the Homestake Mine Conveyance Act of 2001 is to meet that need. It establishes a process to convey the mine to the State of South Dakota, and for the Federal Government to assume a portion of the company's liabilities. This Act will only take effect if the National Science Foundation selects Homestake as the site for an underground laboratory. Only property needed for the construction of the lab will be conveyed, and conveyance can only take place after appropriate environmental reviews and after the Environmental Protection Agency certifies the remediation of any environmental problems. If the mine is conveyed, the State of South Dakota will be required to purchase environmental insurance for the property and set up an environmental trust fund to protect the taxpayers against any environmental liability that may be incurred. I believe this process is fair and equitable to all involved. It will enable the laboratory to be constructed and the environment to be protected."

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-New York) also commented on the legislation when it was being considered in the House last December. Boehlert stated, "Under this bill, the federal government will be responsible for any environmental liability connected with the portions of the Homestake mine that are conveyed to South Dakota - even if they originated while the mine was privately operated. And while the mine will be owned by South Dakota, the state will have no financial responsibility for it; that will rest solely with the federal taxpayer." Boehlert later stated, "This bill must not be used to pressure NSF to change or circumvent its traditional, careful selection procedures. Normally, a project of this magnitude would require several years of review. NSF would have to determine its relative priority among other Major Research Equipment proposals. And NSF would have to ensure that proper management is in place. Those procedures must be followed in this case. Indeed, this is even more important in the case of Homestake because any mismanagement could result in both environmental harm and substantial liability for the Federal Government." In concluding his remarks, Boehlert added, "The Science Committee will be following this matter extremely closely to ensure that the environmental review is rigorous and protects the public interest. We will watch closely to ensure that the laboratory is being reviewed in the same manner as every other NSF project and does not distort the agency's processes or priorities or weigh it down with unsustainable costs. The risks of proceeding with this bill are clear; we will work to see that they are never realized."

Boehlert included an exchange of letters with NSF Director Rita Colwell about the project. Colwell's December 14 reply was as follows:

"DEAR MR. CHAIRMAN:

"Thank you for your letter regarding S. 1389, the 'Homestake Conveyance Act of 2001' and its possible implications for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"The following responds to your requests:

"(1) A plan for how NSF would absorb the expected costs of an underground laboratory at Homestake beginning in Fiscal Year 2003, with special attention to the impact on other projects in the Major Research Equipment account.

"NSF has not identified funds to support the conversion of the Homestake mine into an underground research laboratory. Unless the President requests and Congress appropriates additional monies for the lab, its establishment would force us to reconsider the priorities within the Research and Related Activities appropriation or reevaluate the funding profiles and timelines of existing MRE projects.

"(2) A plan for how NSF would ensure that the laboratory was properly managed, even if a project were awarded in calendar 2002.

"An applicant for a grant of this magnitude must submit a management plan for NSF's review prior to any funding decision by the Foundation. That plan must cover all phases of the project including the planning process, construction or acquisition, integration and test, commissioning, and maintenance and operations. The management plan sets forth the management structure and designates the key personnel who are to be responsible for implementing the award. This proposed management plan then becomes the basis for NSF's review of the adequacy of management for the project.

"The technical and managerial complexity of the proposed lab suggests that NSF would utilize a Cooperative Agreement as the funding instrument. The particular terms of a Cooperative Agreement covering the lab would be established prior to NSF's funding of the proposal. That Cooperative Agreement would specify the extent to which NSF would advise, review, approve or otherwise be involved with project activities. To the extent NSF does not reserve or share responsibility for certain aspects of the project, all such responsibilities remain with the recipient.

"(3) A plan for how NSF would interact with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of South Dakota to ensure that the mine is in proper condition for the establishment of a laboratory and to determine amounts NSF grantees would have to pay into the Environment and Project Trust Fund established under the bill.

"NSF would interact in good faith with the EPA and the State of South Dakota to ensure that the mine is in satisfactory condition for the establishment of a laboratory. Additionally, assessment of the proposal before us will presumably require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The findings of that EIS would very much inform our evaluation of the proposal.

"We share your concern about the mandatory contribution to the Fund required of each project conducted in the lab. Our review of each proposal for science in the lab would include a careful analysis of (1) the projected costs of removing from the mine or laboratory equipment or other materials related to a proposed project, and (2) the projected cost of claims that could arise out of or in connection with a proposed project. Meaningful analysis of both factors would require close cooperation with the lab's Scientific Advisory Board, the State of South Dakota, and the EPA. These costs will factor into our evaluation of each proposal.

"I appreciate the opportunity to work with you in assessing the possible impact of this legislation on the National Science Foundation.

"The Office of Management and Budget advises that there is no objection to the submission of this report from the standpoint of the President's program.

"Sincerely,

Rita R. Colwell, Director"

Currently, $10.00 million in HUD funding is being provided to "the State of South Dakota to maintain the physical integrity of the Homestake Mine in preparation for the potential development of a major research facility on that site." (For additional report language, see FYI #137.) Similar funding has been requested for FY 2003.

The FY 2003 budget submission to Congress states that the foundation requested $60 million for high-energy physics. "This request includes an expenditure over $2 million for research on neutrino collectors, including applications for underground research. Such research, including underground applications, will also be the subject of a major NSF workshop on neutrino research projects and a National Academy of Sciences' Report," the document explains. NSF Director Colwell goes before the House VA, HUD Appropriations Subcommittee this Thursday, and the Senate subcommittee on May 15.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
(301) 209-3095

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