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A no-swimming sign hangs on the banks of a lake near Innisfail, Alta., while a boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on June 12, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A no-swimming sign hangs on the banks of a lake near Innisfail, Alta., while a boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on June 12, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Research on oil-sands impact cost centre its funding, scientists say Add to ...

Leading environmental scientists say Ottawa is cutting funding to a research station that studied the ecology of freshwater lakes for more than 50 years because it is producing data the Conservatives do not want to hear as they promote development of the Alberta oil sands.

A massive budget bill that is about to be passed into law by Stephen Harper’s government will cut about $2-million in annual funding to the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario and close the highly-regarded research centre by next April if a new operator cannot be found.

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David Schindler, a word-renowned biological scientist who teaches at the University of Alberta, took part in a news conference Friday to decry the decision, which he said will eliminate an effective monitor of the impact of the oil sands.

Recent studies conducted at the station have found that when the mercury input to a lake is cut off, the lake begins to recover, Dr. Schindler said. That contradicts the oil industry’s position, which says that once a lake is polluted with mercury, it is beyond repair and adding more won’t make any difference, he said.

“My guess is our current managers don’t like to see this kind of [research] because the oil sands have an exponentially increasing output of mercury,” Dr. Schindler said. “I think the real problem is we have a bunch of people running science in this country who don’t even know what science is.”

John Smol, a biologist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said the Experimental Lakes Area is the best-known fresh-water research facility on the planet. Although he does not work there personally, he said he constantly uses the data obtained at the station in his own research and that is true of fresh-water scientists around the world.

“If you think of any major water-quality problem we have on this planet, starting with the over-fertilization of lakes, to acidification, to metal contamination, to climate change, to many of the emerging problems we are just now discovering,” Dr. Smol said, “ELA research ... has been playing a key role in describing what these problems are and to determine ways that we can solve these problems.”

No other facility has this kind of detailed and long-term monitoring data, Dr. Smol added.

Erin Filliter, a spokeswoman for Keith Ashfield, said the Fisheries Minister does understand important work has been done at the facility.

“But we are now focussing our activities on work that informs [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans] fisheries management and habitat management decisions. The work being conducted at other freshwater research facilities across the country will be able to more than adequately meet the research needs of DFO,” Ms. Filliter said in an e-mail Friday.

“We hope to transfer the facility to another research agent,” she said, “so that the important work can continue to be conducted by another party that will benefit from it.”

Scientists, however, believe it will be very difficult to find another organization to operate the centre because universities are strapped for cash and the province of Ontario has its own fiscal problems.

And although the government would save about $2-million, some estimates suggest it will cost as much as $50-million to close the site and remediate the lakes that have been part of the experiments scientists at the facility have been conducting.

Bruce Hyer, the independent MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North who is himself a biologist, told the news conference he was embarrassed to be in the Commons this week when the government rejected opposition amendments to its budget bill which, he said, effectively kills ecosystem research including that conducted at the ELA.

“The Conservatives were very proud at their discipline,” Mr. Hyer said in describing the way the MPs on the government’s side of the House systematically defeated all of the proposed changes. “They were very proud that they were killing scientific research. They were very proud that they were muzzling scientists.”

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