Plans for a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory in Giles County, presented at a public meeting at Mt. Lake Hotel last night, were greeted with enthusiastic support by representatives from Giles, Craig, and Montgomery Counties in Virginia and Mercer County, W.Va.

Also present were Virginia State Senator John Edwards, Virginia Delegate Benny Keister, and representatives of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, and Giles County Industrial Development Authority (IDA).

Project spokesman Robert Bodnar called it a "unique opportunity for collaboration between Virginia Tech and the communities of Southwest Virginia and southeast West Virginia."

Virginia Tech researchers have been joined by representatives of 74 other institutions who believe that 7,000 feet under Butt Mountain in Giles County would be the ideal site for the national laboratory.

Project leader Bruce Vogelaar in physics, Bodnar in geosciences, Matthew Mauldon in civil and environmental engineering, and other team members, are responding to the National Science Foundation request for proposals for a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), where experiments in physics, geosciences, mining, geoengineering, and other areas could be carried out.

Although the proposal is not due until January 10, 2005, members of the research team have been eager to explain the project, since community support is part of the proposal.

"Research at the site would include study of deep outer space, the particles the sun and other stars send shooting though the earth, a protected environment and new technologies for creating pure supersensitive radiation sensors and pure fluids for semiconductors, the science for locating and wresting petroleum and minerals from the earth, how rocks clean up water and what we could learn from that process, how far under the earth life exists, and mining technologies that will extend our access to the earth's resources," said Bodnar

Based on an economic study done for a proposed DUSEL in Cashmere, Wash., Bodnar told the gathering that construction would take three to five years, cost between $200 and $400 million and that two-thirds of the workforce would be from the local area, that there would be a permanent staff of about 75, that the operating budget would be $15 to $25 million a year, the science budget would be $25 million a year — much of it spent locally, that some 700 researchers would visit annually, and that the visitor and education center would host 250,000 visitors a year, most of them K-12 education groups.

Senator Edwards asked how soon work would start. Bodnar explained that NSF is expected to select three to five sites for further study in spring 2005 based on proposals submitted Jan. 10. Funding for the lab would be a line item in the 2008 budget, with funding in 2009. Later, Bodnar said that there was no guarantee that the project would be funded. Vogelaar added that NSF has planned and managed such major research, equipment, and facilities projects in the past.

Bodnar said the Giles County project is called Kimballton after the mine in the area where the scientists first became aware of the area's geological advantages, but that the exact site and access point under Butt Mountain has yet to be identified. He told a questioner that the laboratory would be under national forest land but that the access would be dictated by the geology. She responded, "Pembroke will take all the business it can get."

Attendees offered help with building support and with sharing information about the project, locally and with state officials. Bodnar said, "We fully intend to engage and include everybody in discussions." He invited input and suggestions. He pointed to support at other sites, ranging from a $50 million state bond issue for the Homestake site in South Dakota to letters from Congressional representatives and local leaders for the San Jacinto site in California.

Bodnar and Vogelaar admitted that the Giles County site is late to the competition. Vogelaar explained that he has been at Virginia Tech for six years and has been doing is research in Italy. He visited Kimballton two years ago and said, "Wow. Why isn't this site being considered?"

Bodnar added, "Now that the national community is becoming aware of this site, they are also saying, 'Wow.' We are confident that we will be one of the top two or three sites."

He concluded, "It is difficult to get people to agree on what science counts. What we have been working on is broadening the scope of science. In that sense, we are ahead of the game. NSF will make their decision based on which lab can best accommodate the science. If two sites are equal, they will look at other factors, such as cost."