The closing of an internationally renowned freshwater research station in northwestern Ontario has been averted in the short term by a deal to keep it open to scientists throughout the fall.
The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is trying to unload the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) and had set Sept. 1 as the final day it would operate the facility if no other organization was willing to take it over.
But talks are progressing with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), the Winnipeg-based nonprofit agency that is interested in assuming responsibility for the ELA, and also with the Ontario government, which owns the land and has promised up to $2-million annually to ensure the station’s continued existence.
So the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said Friday that an agreement on a transitional arrangement will be unveiled Monday. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne will make the announcement in Kenora, Ont.
Sources said the federal department has agreed to continue running the ELA as it engages in a massive cleanup of the 27,000-hectare site, but will no longer participate in any research there.
The IISD will assume the job of monitoring the water in the many lakes that are part of the 40-year-old outdoor laboratory, which has produced ground-breaking research on the effects of pollutants such as acid rain, mercury and phosphates. Ontario will control access to the site and will provide some interim funding to the IISD as needed.
It is a temporary reprieve that could lead to a permanent transfer of the research station. But it is not the final deal that scientists had hoped for.
“I’m certainly glad that Ontario has managed to stop our short-sighted federal government from sending in the bulldozers to demolish the ELA,” Diane Orihel, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta who has been leading the fight to keep the ELA running, said after being told the details of the deal by The Globe and Mail.
“However, I am not sure we should be applauding this development, for the federal government has failed yet again in its promise to transfer the ELA,” said Ms. Orihel. The DFO’s announcement in May, 2012, that it intended to close the station has prevented any whole-ecosystem experiments from being conducted for two field seasons, she said.
“The Conservatives clearly wanted to stifle science at ELA and they have,” said Ms. Orihel. “That said, I am grateful that Ontario and IISD have marched in to rescue the ELA, and the story of the ELA will be told years from now as a conquest of reason over ideology.”
Under a long-standing memorandum of agreement between Ottawa and Ontario, the federal government must clean the site before it relinquishes control of it. To that end, an inventory has been completed of all of the buildings and equipment at the ELA and the fisheries department is now in the process of removing items that are no longer useful.
The IISD has indicated that it wants to keep all of the remaining buildings and the instruments used in laboratory experiments.
During the negotiations, the IISD said it wants assurances that experiments conducted at the station, which often involve injecting pollutants into the lakes to observe the effects, will not break environmental laws. That will likely require new legislation to be passed by Ontario, and perhaps also by the federal government, to exempt the research station from some environmental regulations.
The agency also needs to establish a remediation fund to pay for the cleanup if something goes wrong. But, in a signal of its strong interest in taking over the facility, it has drawn up a plan for approving research at the ELA, which will involve a review by a board made up of independent scientists.