Scientific community braces for closure of Experimental Lakes Area facility

Scientists and politicians gather in Winnipeg, near the Assiniboine River behind the Manitoba legislature, on Tuesday …In May of this year, the federal government announced to the staff and researchers at the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area facility that their funding had been cancelled, and by March 2013 their positions would be cut and the facility closed. The resulting backlash from the scientific community had some media attention over the summer, and scientists believe that there is still hope for the facility.

Since the opposition parties did not have a chance to respond to the plan before the summer break, a protest was held over this past weekend, timed to bring fresh attention to the matter for the start of the fall sitting of Parliament.

The Experimental Lakes Area is a collection of 58 small lakes and their watersheds, southeast of Kenora, Ont., that opened in 1968 as a unique natural laboratory for the long-term study of physical, biological and chemical processes and interactions in freshwater lake ecosystems. The scientific research done at the facility is of global importance, such as the study of nutrient pollution — also called eutrophication — which led to a ban on phosphates in laundry detergents and dishwasher soaps. By dividing one of the 58 lakes in half with a plastic curtain, and adding phosphorus, carbon and nitrogen to the lake water — all three in one half, and just carbon and nitrogen in the other half — the researchers were able to find that adding nitrogen and carbon had little effect on the water quality, but adding phosphorus caused massive green algae blooms.

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Shortly after the federal government's announcement, the scientific community lobbied to keep the facility open, pointing out the scientific contributions that the facility has made here in Canada and around the world, and emphasizing that the remediation cost to return the lakes back to their natural state — an obligation specified in the incorporating acts of the institute — would be far greater than the $2 million annual operating budget of the facility and its staff.

"In 1996, site remediation would have cost $25 million, and that was when it was a bunch of ATCO trailers," said Diane Orihel, leader of the Save the ELA coalition and a PhD student at the University of Alberta, in an interview with CBC News back in June.

The site is no longer just "a bunch of ATCO trailers", though, and now has over 40,000 square feet of building space and a $1 million laboratory. Orihel estimated that currently the cost of site remediation would likely be double the 1996 estimate.

Back in July, award-winning environmentalist David Suzuki wrote about how closing the Experimental Lakes Area just doesn't make any sense, and commented on the odd timing.

"The ELA is being shut down as the government eviscerates laws and regulations designed to protect freshwater and marine habitat and resources with its omnibus budget bill. Included in the bill are changes or cuts to the Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act, Species at Risk Act, and Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and a complete gutting and rewriting of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act," he wrote in his article on Straight.com.

Environment Minister Peter Kent responded to the issue today stating that the federal government doesn't want to close the ELA — they'd prefer that university take over management of the facility.

"We have made it very clear to all stakeholders and interested parties that the intent is not to close the Experimental Lakes Area," Kent said, according to the Winnipeg Free Press. "Environment Canada will assist the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in finding a suitable organization or a consortium to manage operations so that research by the academic community can continue."

However, no changes have been made to the federal government's timeline, and the facility is still scheduled to be closed in March 2013.

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According to the Free Press article, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is meeting with representatives from several universities, the Manitoba government and the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. However, scientists are still concerned that Ottawa's deadline — supposedly in November — is too short, and that turning to universities may not be helpful, as many university budgets have undergone cuts as well.

According to Orihel, an oil company recently contacted her about taking over the ELA for 10 to 15 years to do research, but the firm said all the results would be considered proprietary information.

"Research conducted at the ELA needs to be public and owned by the public so companies cannot decide which information is released and which is kept hidden," she replied.

"If ELA is transferred out and privatized, it would be a disaster."