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Tooele County's Skull Valley will remain home to cows and gnats, rather than hosting scientists and interferometers.

According to the National Science Foundation, the sparsely populated valley wasn't chosen as a site for one of the world's most advanced scientific research stations. The NSF told state science adviser Randy Moon that St. Louis and Richland, Wash., were the two sites selected for construction of the $192 million Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory.Moon and other officials had hoped Utah would land the Western component of the project and suggested using nine square miles on flats near Tooele County's Skull Valley.

The project is intended to prove or disprove the existence of gravity waves, which are predicted by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. According to the theory, gravity waves radiating from unusual, super-massive objects like orbiting neutron stars or black holes actually distort matter throughout the universe.

Utah was among 20 states that sought the experiment, which requires two observatories, one on each side of the continent. Tooele County was the state's choice because an extensive work-up had already been prepared when the state bid on the $4 billion superconducting supercollider project in 1988.

Back then, Utah lost out on the collider because the Air Force objected, saying the program would infringe on an electronic battlefield it was proposing. But later the electronic range was scrapped due to the budget crunch and the end of the Cold War.

Each of the two gravity-wave observatories would use a pair of "vacuum pipe" arms 21/2 miles long, set at an angle to each other.

Fundamental discoveries seem certain if the stations are built as planned. Also, if a third observatory is built - and German, English and Japanese agencies are considering such projects - then the source of gravity waves might be discovered in addition to simply proving that they exist.

Utah was among the finalists for the gravity-wave observatory, Richard Isaacson, program director for gravitational physics, National Science Foundation, told the Deseret News in 1990. The NSF even asked Utah for more information about the Tooele County site.

The site seemed ideal: flat public land, close to Salt Lake City, with few potential environmental problems. The population nearby is well-educated, and university research facilities are easily available.

But recently, an NSF official told Moon, "We wanted to let you know we selected St. Louis and Hanford" - the Hanford Nuclear Reservation at Richland, Wash.

The major reason Hanford was selected is that it already has a federal facility. In addition to a plant where plutonium was extracted for nuclear bombs, Hanford has a civilian nuclear-waste depository.

Moon is philosophical about the loss. "It's not like we counted on it and had spent a lot of money on it," he said. In fact, he said, to save money for the state, volunteers put together the proposal.