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One of the lakes used in wetland resevoir project at the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario is shown in an undated photo. (HANDOUT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
One of the lakes used in wetland resevoir project at the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario is shown in an undated photo. (HANDOUT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Supporters of freshwater research centre ask Environment Canada to take over Add to ...

A group that has been trying for months to convince the federal government to keep open a world-renowned freshwater research facility in Northern Ontario is trying another tactic – one that the government has been quick to dismiss.

Diane Orihel, the director of the Coalition to Save the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), told a news conference on Thursday she will be writing Environment Minister Peter Kent to ask his department to take over responsibility of the station from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

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The ELA, a 44-year-old program consisting of 58 small lakes and their drainage area which has helped scientists learn more about problems like acid rain, climate change and the infiltration of fresh water by pharmaceuticals, will be closed at the end of March next year unless a new operator can be found.

The Conservative government has said the move will save taxpayers about $2-million a year. But it also coincides with the government’s decision to take responsibility for the protection of fish and their habitats away from the DFO except in cases where it will directly benefit human enterprise or recreation.

“The DFO has made it clear that it is no longer wants to fund the ELA because its mandate changed after the gutting of the Fisheries Act in Bill C-38,” said Ms. Orihel, referring to the omnibus budget bill passed into law last spring.

“However,” she said, “the ELA must remain a public program, in order to fulfill its role of responding to government priorities and supporting public policy. As such, the only solution is to transfer the ELA program and science team to Environment Canada.”

Ms. Orihel said the ELA would help the environment department meet its strategic objectives of identifying new threats to freshwater resources, assessing the impacts of economic growth and climate change on the water supply, and addressing problems that could be created by the oil sands.

But a spokesman for Mr. Kent was quick to deny her request. “The answer is no,” said Adam Sweet.

The research station has received support from scientists around the globe, provincial premiers, provincial environment ministers and the more than 25,000 people who have signed a petition to save it.

It has also been championed by local politicians and media in and around Dryden and Kenora, the two closest municipalities.

One person who has not stepped forward to defend it is Conservative MP Greg Rickford who represents the Kenora riding in the House of Commons. Bruce Hyer, the independent MP who represents the neighbouring riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North and who has been a champion of the research station, said he believes Mr. Rickford could face trouble in the next election because support for the ELA locally is so strong.

The federal government says officials from the DFO are talking with universities and other “interested parties,” to see is there is someone else who is willing to take over responsibility for the ELA

“The government is currently working towards transferring the Experimental Lakes Area to another operator that will benefit from this unique facility,” a spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said in an e-mail on Tuesday. “Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently in discussions with interested parties to advance this transfer.”

But, when pressed, the department could not say that there is any group that is currently interested in taking the ELA over.

It is clear that the government has no interest in continuing to operate the centre and that the months that Ms. Orihel’s group has spent lobbying for its continuation have had little impact.

But politicians attending the news conference including Mr. Hyer, Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May pointed out that the Conservative government has changed its mind about some issues like asbestos.

They and Ms. Orihel said they will never give up the fight even though the time is ticking down to the station’s closure.

“Wars aren’t won on what people think is possible,” said Ms. Orihel. “Wars are won in ideals. It’s about standing up for what is right.”

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