Native Sun News: Energy Department requests tribal comments

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Not only a science facility, Sanford Lab provides chances for students to learn from physicists underground. PHOTO COURTESY/Dahl McLean

MAP: Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment. PHOTO COURTESY/DOE

Energy Department calls on 19 Northern Plains Tribes
By Talli Nauman
Health & Environment Editor
Native Sun News

LEAD — The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is asking 19 Northern Plains tribes to sound off about a proposal that would open the frontiers of science by creating a Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment for physicists to measure how minute particles of matter change form when beamed 800 miles from the prairie of Illinois to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

“By better understanding these strange, elusive particles, scientists seek to better understand the workings of all the universe, one discovery at a time,” says Symmetry, a magazine of the DOE’s Illinois-based Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where the particles would be launched.

The DOE has hand-delivered and mailed letters of inquiry to the tribal chairs and historic preservation officers of the Cheyenne River, Crow, Crow Creek, Eastern Shoshone, Flandreau, Ft. Berthold, Ft. Peck, Lake Traverse, Lower Brule, Northern Arapahoe, Northern Cheyenne, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Santee, Sisseton Wahpeton, Spirit Lake, Yankton, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and Winnebago reservations.

“We’re hopeful we can have a great discussion with the tribes and all interested members of the public in South Dakota and around the facility,” DOE Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE) Compliance Officer Peter Siebach told the Native Sun News on Feb. 20.

The DOE is seeking government-to-government consultation between federal and tribal officials on an environmental assessment of the experiment, in accord with the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Fermilab Site Manager Michael Weis in Batavia, Ill., wrote the letter in January to the tribal representatives in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, according to Siebach.

“Just so we could get started, we asked if they want to engage in the process or if they would prefer not to,” Siebach said. “We want to leave it wide open for the tribes to contact us when they’re ready,” he said. “The tribes have all the flexibility they would like to comment any time they’d like.”

In addition to government-to-government consultations, DOE will be conducting information meetings and comment periods in the months ahead for the general public.

The draft environmental assessment will include a description of the project and an analysis of potential impacts related to air, sound, water, soil, safety, and traffic flow, among other things.

The result of the assessment will be either a finding of “no significant impact” to the environment or a recommendation to conduct an environmental impact study, which is more detailed than an assessment. Groundbreaking would be in 2015, if the process proceeds apace.

The experiment would require construction of buildings and research facilities at both Fermilab, 40 miles west of Chicago, and the Sanford Underground Research Laboratory at the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead.

The first phase of the project would involve building a large hill and an underground beam pipe at the Fermilab site, as well as a 50-foot-high neutrino detector just below the surface at the Sanford Lab site.

A particle accelerator, located in the midst of a 1,000-acre tall-grass prairie in Illinois, would create the world’s highest intensity neutrino beams. Because neutrinos rarely interact with other particles, no tunnel would be needed for them to travel through the earth’s crust at a maximum depth of 20 miles from there across Iowa to the mile-high mountains of western South Dakota.

Neutrinos are abundant and harmless, invisible particles with no electric charge. They change forms or “flavors” in a process called oscillation.

In the experiment, the accelerator would smash a batch of protons into a graphite target every 1.3 seconds to make short-lived particles called pions. Strong magnetic fields would guide and focus the pions to form a beam pointing toward the LBNE detector in South Dakota.

The pions would travel a few hundred feet, decay and produce muon neutrinos and antineutrinos. In the detector at the other end of the project, a grid of wires submerged in liquid argon and placed under high voltage would attract charged particles that appear when neutrinos interact with the liquid.

The technique has been employed in a smaller neutrino detector in Italy. Scientists designing the Sanford detector consider the distance between Batavia and the Black Hills ideal for measuring the oscillation, which is the key to understanding neutrino’s role in the universe.

So far, more than 350 scientists and engineers from more than 60 institutions have joined the LBNE collaboration. They are from universities and national laboratories in the United States, India, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom. Project leaders anticipate further international participation.

“I think it’s not only a science facility but also a great way to gets kids excited about science,” Siebach said. “It provides positive educational outreach opportunities for tribal students,” he added.

Native American students have taken part in some of the many experiments at Sanford Lab, through collaborations with Red Cloud Indian School, Oglala Lakota College and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, among other institutions.

The experiments put western South Dakota in the league with particle physics laboratories worldwide, which are on the cutting edge of imminent technological breakthroughs.

Since the state has not funded a PhD program in physics to date, Gov. Dennis Daugaard has asked for $1.9 million in his budget request to the current 2013 state legislature, for South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, together with the University of South Dakota, to offer a doctoral degree.

South Dakota and Vermont are the only states without a doctoral degree program in physics. If funded, South Dakota’s program will get underway with support for 12 students in 2013, growing to 48 in five years.

In a written statement announcing the budget request, Daugaard told lawmakers, “The doctoral degree will support the state’s significant investment in the Sanford Underground Research Facility at the former Homestake Gold Mine.

“The degree will increase South Dakota’s national and international reputation in physics, and make its physics faculty more competitive for external grant funding because of the availability of doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers.”

(Contact Talli Nauman is Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun news and can be reached at

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