LEAD, S.D. (AP) — Sanford Lab Safety Officer Tom Regan can sit down with a blank sheet of paper and completely map out any given level of the underground lab.
He knows every drift passageway
He knows every feature.
He knows every working system.
He knows every hazard, every nook and every cranny of every level of the 8,000-foot former gold mine.
"I have been to every drift and every place you could humanly get to underground," Regan said. "Even to this day I can sit down with a blank sheet of paper and draw out a level, draw out all of the features on that level. You can take a regular map and put them side-by-side and they'll be pretty close. I don't have the greatest memory in the world, but something clicked with that."
In fact, Regan said, he still has dreams of walking the drifts of the underground Sanford Lab.
Those dreams are not likely to subside, Regan said, after he officially retires from the lab on Nov. 2 — exactly 43 years after he started working for Homestake as a student laborer on Nov. 2, 1969.
Regan, who began his work for Homestake working nights while he attended school full time at Black Hills State University and supported his wife and two children, has worn many hats at the facility. Starting as a student laborer, he has been an underground laborer, a locomotive operator, a miner, heavy equipment operator, and a scheduler. He also planned special projects for the mining company, including the installation of the 6,950-foot level ventilation plant, and other projects that were associated with deepening the 8,000-foot gold mine beyond 6,800 feet. Later in his career he was the mine services planner, taking care of all the underground work that was not directly associated with mining, such as construction, sand, locomotive haulage, and backfilling.
Then, in 1998 when Homestake began laying off workers, Regan was retained to help with the mine optimization program, working on ways to consolidate mining areas. Afterward, he served as the underground haulage foreman for a few years, moving all of the rock that was mined to the shafts.
In 2000, when Homestake merged with Barrick Gold Corp., Regan was severed from Homestake. But the next week he was back once again, this time as a consultant, hired to do the underground closure and cleanup work.
"At the same time there were a number of us that worked with folks who had the vision that this site could be something else in the future," Regan said. "Even from 2000, even as we were going through the closure process, we always had the idea that we could go back. Part of that was trying to maintain as much of the equipment as we could."
In many ways it was this big idea and the associated foresight that paved the way for the lab development of the future, as Regan and mine crews drained underground hoists of petroleum lubrication, replacing it with food-grade oils that would hold up in a flood.
In addition to closing the mine, Regan and many others also worked with the state to help establish the S.D. Science and Technology Authority, which would eventually secure the former Homestake Gold Mine property for development into a federal underground laboratory. In this capacity, Regan acted as a consultant to create the safety plan for the re-entry of the mine, as well as to write the safety manual. When the S.D. Science and Technology Authority was established, Regan was the 12th employee hired for the team.
Regan said he still remembers his initial walk-through to determine conditions on the 800-foot level, after it had been closed for a few years.
"Getting back underground after the mine was closed, that was just an awesome feeling," he said. "Those were fun inspections. As we went out we had a safety plan and we would take telephone wire with us in backpacks and every 500 feet we would call back and say we were OK. We would go out thousands of feet because we didn't know what we had. It was a muddy mess, but it was a lot of fun."
Since that time, Regan has acted as the safety officer for the Sanford Lab, establishing relationships with area agencies to ensure the highest levels of safety at the lab. Some of his key accomplishments, he said, have been refurbishing major infrastructure at the lab, establishing an emergency response and mine rescue training program, creating an environment for a helicopter landing in a parking lot for emergency medical evacuation, and working to establish a relationship with the 82nd Civil Support team of the S.D. Army National Guard.
After all of that, Regan said, it's time to move on.
"When looking at your yard, you don't see just one blade of grass and decide it's time to cut the yard," he said. "You look at the whole yard. So I have looked at my whole career and I have looked at what I am doing, where I am with my family, and this community of Lead-Deadwood and the Northern Hills, and it's just time to cut the grass. It's just that time."
Though Regan said he doesn't have any specific plans for retirement, he said he is looking forward to pursuing other possibilities — including becoming more active in his church, where he is an ordained Episcopalian deacon. But don't look for him to relax too much, as Regan said he still plans to work with the lab as a consulting, temporary employee. In this capacity, Regan said, he will be providing training, doing emergency response consultations and underground risk assessment.
"That's probably good for me and I hope good for the laboratory," he said. "I'm not retiring so I can do something. I am retiring so I can find out what I want to do."
Regan said he is proud to have been involved in the gold mine's history, and part of building the Sanford Lab's future.
"Every time I go underground it is just such an honor to be part of this project," he said. "We mined almost 126 years. A lot of good things have happened in this community because of this mine and a lot has been taken out of this good earth. Now our generation has the opportunity to get back into the underground and provide value for the future."