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A sign marking one of the many lakes that are part of the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ont., is photographed on Nov. 1, 2012. (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A sign marking one of the many lakes that are part of the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ont., is photographed on Nov. 1, 2012. (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Deal near to save freshwater research station Ottawa tried to shut down Add to ...

An agreement to transfer the operation of Canada’s world-renowned freshwater research station to an international environmental think tank is expected to be finalized on Monday.

A deal would mean scientists can return to the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in time for the spring field season.

All major new research at the ELA has been put on hold since May 2012 when the federal Conservative government said it was closing the 45-year-old facility – a one-of-a-kind outdoor laboratory in northwestern Ontario composed of 58 small lakes and their drainage basins. It was saved by public outcry but has been operating on what amounts to life support.

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Representatives from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Ontario government negotiated throughout the weekend to transfer the job of running the station from DFO to the IISD.

Provincial sources told The Globe and Mail on Sunday that the federal government has signed papers to give Ontario the land that the DFO owns at the ELA, including the laboratories and other buildings. But other items were unresolved as the negotiations continued into Sunday evening.

An interim deal that has been keeping the ELA functioning at a bare-bones level is set to expire. Unless a new agreement is announced before midnight on Monday, the ELA will cease to exist. The station, which must be operated around the clock to keep instrumentation functioning and lakes monitored, would shut down and experiments planned for 2014 would have to be cancelled.

There was some concern on the part of scientists that, if a final agreement could not be reached, the parties will merely extend the interim arrangement that has been in place since September. But the Ontario sources said a complete transfer to the IISD is coming together. “We are quite positive about it,” said the source.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has already said the province will step in to provide up to $2-million to keep the ELA running after the federal government cut off its funding.

It has been nearly a year and a half since the institute was named as the only party interested in taking over the operation of the facility, which has provided decades of groundbreaking research on the effects of pollutants such as acid rain, mercury and phosphates.

The federal government said the work at the ELA no longer fits with the DFO mandate. Critics suggest the Conservatives did not want to fund research on issues such as climate change.

David Schindler, the freshwater research scientist who was the founding director of the ELA, said a major sticking point in the negotiations has been the federal government’s concern that it will be on the hook for large cleanup costs. But those fears are unfounded, said Dr. Schindler, because the experiments have been designed to ensure that they will create no environmental problems, now or in the future.

An agreement to transfer the ELA from the federal government to the IISD sounds like good news, but it is critical to know how it will be funded and who will staff it, he said. “There are a thousand ways to emasculate it.”

Diane Orihel, a scientist who has led a group created to save the facility, said the ELA had been severely neglected and abused under DFO management for many years, so a transfer to the IISD could be a good thing. But “the next chapter in ELA’s history will undoubtedly involve many challenges, and its long-term survival is not guaranteed,” Dr. Orihel said.

“IISD will first have to rebuild ELA’s world-class science team, which had withered away and was eventually eliminated by the DFO,” she said. “IISD will then have to hunt down dollars for scientific research, which won’t be easy since IISD staff will not be able to directly compete for grants from major funding sources earmarked for government scientists or university academics.”

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