Underground lab raises mountain of controversy

LEAVENWORTH, Chelan County — Wick Haxton and Robert Smith both want Icicle Valley to be a quiet place to contemplate the universe. But they have very different ideas about what that means.

Haxton, a University of Washington physics professor, heads a group angling for $300 million from the National Science Foundation to tunnel three miles into the side of Icicle Valley and build the world's deepest underground laboratory. In the complex at the end of the tunnel, 7,000 feet under Cashmere Mountain, scientists would perform cutting-edge research requiring shelter from cosmic rays.

"It would be a galactic observatory that would give us insights into the basic workings of the universe," Haxton says.

Smith, who has lived in this Bavarian-themed tourist town since 1972, is a photographer and retired dentist who runs the Hotel Pension Anna. He is in opposition to the lab being built.

"I'm all in favor of increasing our understanding of the universe," Smith says. "I've read Stephen Hawking's books. But what's more important is that the Icicle Valley is one of the Northwest's great quiet places. This research can be done elsewhere."

If built, the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory — Cascades would be 500 feet deeper than the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, built in 1998 in a nickel mine in Ontario, Canada. The tunnel would penetrate what is an enormous teardrop-shaped granitic bedrock extending about 35 miles to the northwest and 18 miles east of Leavenworth.

Cot Rice, founder of the Icicle Valley Protection Alliance, talks with Molly Loomis from the National Outdoor Leadership School, who was leading a camping trip on Cashmere Mountain.
To sensitive instruments placed in the mountain's heart, the overlying rock would serve as a 7,000-foot-thick shield, blocking most particles but allowing one type in particular, the neutrino, to pass.

Neutrinos are created by fusion reactions in the core of all stars, including our sun, and studying them can yield information about how the sun burns, how elements are formed in star explosions, and how the early universe evolved.

The lab also would include space for a variety of other research requiring protection from cosmic particles. Radioactive material would be kept out of the lab because it would introduce the same sort of particles that an underground facility is built to exclude.

Construction on the lab wouldn't start until 2008 at the earliest. Haxton and his UW colleague John Wilkerson are working on a formal proposal to the National Science Foundation and plan to submit it this summer. To be funded, it must beat pitches from five other sites, including California, Colorado and Minnesota, pass environmental reviews, and run a congressional budgeting gauntlet.

The UW Regents back the Leavenworth proposal, however, Gov. Gary Locke and the Department of Ecology have yet to take a position on it, Wilkerson says.

If built, the complex at the end of the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory's tunnel would be constructed 7,000 feet below Cashmere Mountain, making it the world's deepest underground laboratory. Cashmere Mountain is shown at right, partially covered by a shadow.
A group of more than 300 scientists from around the country is behind the move to develop a new underground laboratory somewhere in the United States, something that exists in a number of other countries.

Controversial corridor

On a summer afternoon drive up Icicle Road to the proposed lab site, bicyclists crowd the narrow shoulder, as rock climbers and backpackers ready their gear on tailgates. Nearby Icicle Creek rushes with snowmelt. The Forest Service estimates that the Icicle Valley gets 300,000 recreational visits per year.

Access to the proposed laboratory would be through two, 20-foot diameter tunnels in Icicle Valley's south wall. Tunneling would take 2.6 years and fill 43,000 gravel trucks, which would rumble down Icicle Creek Road, through town to a yet-to-be-determined dump site.

Like Robert Smith, many residents are wary of the years of construction on outdoor recreation and tourism in a corridor used for just about every outdoor pursuit imaginable.

"Icicle Creek is the life blood of the community," says Cot Rice, a founder of the Icicle Valley Protection Alliance, a citizens group opposing the lab.

"We talk to climbers and snowmobilers and hikers about the lab. And they all say, 'whaddya mean they're gonna do that? They can't do that!' "

Rice also is concerned that the lab would pose a risk to Leavenworth's water supply, drawn from the Icicle downstream from the proposed tunnel mouth.

City Councilman Robert Eaton, who sells Christmas tree ornaments, has expressed his support for the proposed lab. He said he thinks the lab would be a good way to enhance the town's identity.
In response to such concerns, Haxton and Wilkerson have held public meetings and posted answers about the lab on the project Web site. Both men are hikers and insist the project would have minimal impact.

"There are a lot of shared values here," Haxton says. "For instance, we want clean air in the valley because that's what we're going to be sucking into the tunnel. The bottom line is that it's a really neat thing we're doing and if they want to diversify their economy, this is a great, clean way to do it."

"We think that Dr. Haxton is to be admired for thinking that he can overcome any problem," says Anne Nowacki, another member of the Icicle Valley Protection Alliance. "But he's not realistic in his optimism. He did admit that there would be lawsuits that might slow it up. Well, there are going to be lots of lawsuits, that's a given."

According to Susan Carter, Environmental Coordinator for the Wenatchee National Forest, a sticking point may be Forest Service land-use designations that protect land along Icicle Creek.

The 1990 Wenatchee National Forest Plan recommends that the creek be designated a recreation-level wild and scenic river, which would require protection for a quarter-mile on both banks. In most places, a quarter-mile corridor would include all reasonably flat land on the floor of the narrow Icicle Valley.

But, Carter says, these rules are guidelines, and will be open to interpretation during the Environmental Impact Statement process if the lab proposal moves forward.

Despite the impacts, some residents, like City Councilman Robert Eaton, who sells Christmas ornaments, want to give the lab a chance. "This isn't a reinvention of Leavenworth. It's a supplement, a way to add to our identity.

"I went to the first open house at the high school, and there were more than 300 people there. The town is energized. This conversation is going to be good for the community."

No stranger to change

Leavenworth is no stranger to change. In the early 1960s, as the town struggled through the decline of the railroad and timber industries, a few Leavenworth residents gambled on converting the town into a German-themed tourist attraction.

The idea took and tourism is booming. Today, 1.4 million people visit each year.

Bill Taylor, executive director of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, doubts that the lab construction would dampen tourism, and thinks that Leavenworth would do well to diversify its polka-driven economy.

"Tourism is the only industry we have here, and it doesn't produce many family-wage jobs. That's been a great negative for us."

The lab proposal includes a plan for a 48,000-square-foot visitor complex and K-12 science center in Leavenworth — Bavarian architecture, of course. Haxton and Wilkerson estimate that the lab and visitor center would generate about 100 permanent jobs, two-thirds filled by locals. About 100 resident and visiting scientists also would work there.

To manage the public discussion, the Port of Chelan County hired Jim Reed, a Seattle-based facilitator, to interview residents and run community meetings. After interviewing 114 people, Reed is now assembling a citizen committee that will discuss the lab in open meetings, starting later this month. By Thanksgiving, the committee will summarize community opinion. Disagreement over whether the lab's benefits outweigh its risks are bound to persist.

"I want to see Leavenworth succeed economically, and I think it has, as a tourist town," says Robert Smith. "I don't see the need to switch.

"My son wants to come here and work. It's true that there's not much good work here besides tourism. But I'm not willing to sacrifice the Icicle for that."

Jim Downing: 206-464-2164 or jdowning@seattletimes.com