The federal government says it is still trying to find a buyer for the world-renowned freshwater research station in Northern Ontario that it is closing at the end of this month, but it has already sent in a crew to start taking down buildings.
The doors of the old sleeping cabins at the 45-year-old Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) are being ripped off, the appliances are being taken away, and the personal belongings of researchers are being removed.
The news of the work came as a shock to scientists who rely on the decades of data that have been obtained at the ELA, the one-of-a-kind outdoor laboratory that has informed the world about the effects of contaminants such as mercury, acid rain and phosphorus.
Roberto Quinlan, a biology professor at York University in Toronto, said he was even more surprised to learn that the scrapping of ELA buildings was being done without the knowledge of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), the Winnipeg-based United Nations think tank that is the only group known to be discussing the possible takeover of the facility.
"I have confirmed that IISD knew nothing about the work that is being done on these cabins," said Dr. Quinlan, who is on the executive of the Society of Canadian Limnologists – Canada's aquatic research community. "If the IISD doesn't know that this is going on, then this brings into serious doubt the government's sincerity to actually transfer the facility over to another operator."
The IISD, which has kept its negotiations with the government behind closed doors, did not respond Friday to requests for comment. There have been many questions about whether that group, or any other, is willing to assume what could be tens of millions of dollars in liability for the eventual remediation of the area.
A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans said Friday that no demolition was being done that day. "Minor work is, however, being carried out on some cabins as they near the end of their life cycle and are prepared for eventual removal," she said.
The cabins are the only accommodation for scientists and their families – some choose to bring spouses and children if they are going to be there for long periods during the summer – and were being lived in until just a couple of months ago.
The Fisheries Department says it wants nothing more to do with the ELA, arguing that the research does not fit with its core mandate. By ending its funding of the station, the government will save $2-million a year.
But the scientists say the decision to shut down the ELA has more to do with ideology than economics and that it will do incalculable damage to their ability to preserve the quality of this country's most valuable asset – its water.
Since the closure of the research station was announced last May, the government has rejected most requests by reporters to visit the ELA. But The Globe and Mail toured the facility late last fall without official sanction.
The laboratories were still functioning with a skeleton staff, and equipment – boats and docks and motors – was being stored in the expectation that it would be put back into service this year. But there was a distinct aura of gloom.
Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield will not discuss the Experimental Lakes Area. When The Globe asked for an interview this week, his department replied: "We are respectfully declining your request."
Greg Rickford, the local Conservative MP, also refused to talk about it but sent a statement saying: "Our government is currently in the process of negotiations for the transfer of the Experimental Lakes Area to an appropriate third-party stakeholder. The negotiations are confidential, however, we are optimistic there will be positive results."
Scientists are not convinced. "It's a complete travesty," said John Smol, a biology professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. "The fundamental work for the understanding of all these problems that affect everyday lives of Canadians, but also the rest of the world, has come from foundation science coming from there."
Maggie Xenopolous, a biology professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., travelled to the ELA two weeks ago to put boats in a lake and to prepare for another season of testing for her experiment on silver nanoparticles – tiny particles of silver being added to clothes that are ending up in watersheds.
Dr. Xenopolous was well aware that her trip could ultimately be a wasted effort and that she will be barred from the ELA as of April 1.
"It has been really stressful, I'm not going to lie," she said. "Since this [closure] was announced in May it has just been a roller-coaster for all of us at Trent because we can't do the whole lake experiment unless we are able to go out there. There is no other place where we can do it."
In fact, the research station that has made Canada a world leader in the science of fresh water for decades could continue for another summer if the federal government would just cover the cost of basic supplies like gasoline and food.
The biggest part of the $2-million required to keep it running goes to the Fisheries Department scientists and technicians who work at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, where ELA data is analyzed. Under union rules, they could still be at their jobs and receiving their paycheques more than a year from now – whether there is work to do or not.
The station will remain under federal control through the summer. But it will be a shadow of its former self. Instead of bustling with scientists, it will be patrolled by a security guard – the former station manager – whose job will be to keep people out.
David Schindler, the environmental scientist who first envisioned the Experimental Lakes Area and who was its director between 1968 and 1989, said he first realized the station was in jeopardy when Joe Oliver, the Natural Resources Minister, began referring to environmentalists as radicals who were trying to destroy the Canadian economy.
If it is closed, the ELA can never be duplicated, Dr. Schindler said. "We think there's a lot of wilderness but, in fact, we've got a very crowded landscape already at temperate latitude," he said, "so you would never be able to get it back."