Henderson Mine considered for prestigious national lab
DENVER – A far-flung group of scientists, government officials and a mining company are working to help the United States accomplish something Albert Einstein himself struggled with over the last 30 years of his life: develop a theory to account for all the forces of nature.The group is looking to the Colorado Rockies – deep inside a working molybdenum mine west of Denver – as a possible site for a new laboratory that would house experiments thousands of feet under Harrison Mountain.If everything works as planned, the work could include a search for a “grand unified theory,” said group leader Chang Kee Jung, a particle physicist at Stony Brook University in New York.The Henderson Mine, about 60 miles west of Denver near the base of Berthoud Pass, and the shuttered Homestake gold mine near Lead, S.D., are the finalists for the $300 million Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory that will be run by the National Science Foundation.Jung said the lab would help restore the United States’ status as a world leader in particle physics after years of seeing top scientists join labs in Europe and Japan.
“I came here to be a leader, to be involved in pioneering and cutting-edge experiments,” he said. “We really need to do something in the U.S. to get that leadership back and do something exciting.”Jung and others believe Henderson is an ideal spot. It’s a short drive, mostly on Interstate 70, from Denver International Airport and the amenities and other services of Denver. Brief car rides also could bring scientists to the University of Colorado, the Colorado School of Mines or Colorado State University, all partners in the proposal.Among other things, the lab will house experiments in geology, microbiology and other disciplines. Jung’s group and a similar group promoting the Homestake mine each received $500,000 from the agency to conduct tests and develop detailed proposals to build laboratories deep underground, insulated from cosmic rays that would contaminate certain experiments.Those proposals are due June 23. After a site is selected, Congress and the president would have to approve funding before construction can begin. Jung said the earliest that could happen here would be 2009.To help sweeten Colorado’s bid for the lab, the Legislature is working on a bill to provide $20 million from mineral severance tax revenue over five years to build a visitors center and some administrative offices if Henderson is chosen for the project. The measure won unanimous approval in a Senate committee earlier this month.
Jung hopes the lab someday could include highly sensitive particle detectors that would gather information on some of the fundamental building blocks of matter. That would cost an additional $500 million and require separate approval, Jung said.Backers of the South Dakota mine tout qualities including its depth, with shafts sinking to 8,000 feet. The mine already has scientific credentials: a University of Pennsylvania researcher was a co-winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for physics after using the mine to house equipment to detect neutrinos, tiny particles that provide valuable insight into how stars work.But the Canadian mining company slated to donate the mine to the state of South Dakota shut down its pumps in 2003, allowing deeper areas of the mine to fill with water. Officials said the water has not risen to the 4,850-foot level, where backers hope to build an interim laboratory that would be the deepest in the United States and the second deepest in the world.If the national lab is built at Homestake, it would include a lab area 7,400 feet below the surface.Besides its proximity to Denver and three universities, Henderson’s supporters point out the mine has an industrial-strength lift that can carry up to 50 tons of material, that no new environmental permits would be needed for excavation and that the Phelps Dodge Corp. mining company is backing the project.
“You may call it subjective, but it isn’t,” Jung said. “It’s really a no-brainer.”The mine is owned by a subsidiary of Phelps Dodge, which is expected to halt mining there in about 20 years.”We have a responsibility to plan for the long-term use of the property there and a life after mining,” company spokesman Ken Vaughn said. “If this project can be developed concurrently with mining but have a life extending beyond mining, providing jobs and economic stimulation and also making good use of the property, that’s something we look at with all our properties.”At Henderson, the laboratory would have three campuses. The upper campus, which would use existing mine openings, would have facilities about 4,000 feet below the surface. New excavation would be necessary for the central campus at 5,550 feet deep and the lower campus would be about 7,400 feet deep.The labs would be isolated from the mining operations, all of which occur under adjacent Red Mountain. New shafts and ramps would be bored between the sites to connect the mine to the laboratory, which would include offices and dormitories on the surface.
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