Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has unveiled an interim deal to keep open an internationally renowned freshwater research station in northwestern Ontario, while negotiations continue this fall to transfer the facility from the federal government to a non-profit environmental agency.
Ottawa has said that the research at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) no longer fit its mandate. It set Sept. 1 as the final day it would operate the facility if no other organization was willing to take it over.
But talks with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), the Winnipeg-based organization that is interested in assuming responsibility for the ELA, and also with the Ontario government that owns the land, have been progressing. It was agreed that scientists should not be barred from the station this fall.
“I am thrilled that a decision has been reached to keep Experimental Lakes Area open,” Ms. Wynne, who was in Kenora for the announcement, said in a statement. “The research performed here provides invaluable knowledge about climate change and helps protect freshwater systems around the world. I want to thank all parties for working together to help make Ontario a world-class destination for scientific research.”
The federal department will continue running the ELA as it engages in a cleanup of thousands of items on the 27,000-hectare site that is expected to last several months, but DFO 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 that has produced groundbreaking 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 not the long-term deal that scientists had hoped for. Many are frustrated that whole-ecosystem research has not been conducted at the ELA since the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans first announced in May 2012 that it planned to close the site and then, after an outcry from researchers, offered to sell it.
But Scott Vaughan, IISD president, said the new deal is good news. “It’s an interim measure and what we are all looking for is a permanent home and we are really optimistic,” he told The Globe and Mail.
Some of the scientists who do research at the station have expressed concern over the seemingly slow pace of negotiations around the transfer. But Mr. Vaughan said the talks have been going “flat out” and there has been excellent co-operation on all sides.
“I only have been at IISD for about four months,” he said, “but since I have been here, it’s been moving about as quickly as anybody would expect it to move.”
The IISD 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.