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Wash. loses bid for national underground lab

Mary Clare Jalonick Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The National Science Foundation on Tuesday chose South Dakota’s closed Homestake Gold Mine as the site for a new underground physics lab to study the history and makeup of the universe.

South Dakota won the project, called the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, over three other states – Colorado, Minnesota and Washington. The NSF said the lab, located at Lead, S.D., in the northern Black Hills, would be the largest and deepest facility of its kind in the world if it is built as currently envisioned.

The research team developing the project is expected to receive up to $5 million a year for three years to continue planning for the lab. Construction is scheduled to start in fiscal year 2010, depending on funding from Congress.

The lab would conduct research in physics, astrophysics, earth science and geomicrobiology, studying particles from the sun, the formation of minerals and hydrology inside the Earth and microbial life underground.

Physicists want to go deep underground to conduct experiments to increase their understanding of the universe’s composition, its beginning and future. More than a mile of rock would filter out many of the cosmic rays.

Scientists also want to study dark matter, which has gravitational force but is not visible. Other experiments would study whether protons decay, which the NSF has said would provide evidence that all the fundamental forces are united at some very high energy.

South Dakota touted Homestake’s depth, its existing miles of tunnels and shafts, and immediate availability as reasons to put the lab there. Mining stopped at Homestake seven years ago.

Homestake and a mine in Colorado were chosen in 2005 as finalists for the lab. The NSF reopened the competition in 2006 after the University of Washington complained that its proposal was unfairly eliminated. The foundation later accepted proposals from Washington and Minnesota.

The University of Washington-led team, headed by physicist Wick Haxton, had proposed a site under Cowboy Mountain in the Stevens Pass ski area. The plan would have used the Pioneer Tunnel, dug in the 1920s as an access and hauling route for crews constructing the Cascade Tunnel rail route.

“I was really pleased with the effort that the NSF made to review the four sites carefully,” said Haxton. “We thought we’d put on a really good show for Washington state, but we also support the decision that the NSF made. We intend to work hard to help (the project) move forward.”

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