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A traffic sign on Highway 17 at the turn off to the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ont. that had the name Harper added to it is photographed Nov. 1, 2012. The research facility examines, using experimental lakes, the effect of human activities on lakes and their watersheds.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's government has intervened to help preserve the freshwater research station controversially shuttered by the federal government.

At an event at the University of Toronto on Wednesday morning alongside several of her ministers, Premier Kathleen Wynne said the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario does "extremely important work" and that she is "working with our partners to make sure that work can continue."

While Ms. Wynne said she is willing to "put operating dollars" toward keeping the ELA open, it remains unclear what precisely her government's commitment is. Provincial officials declined to elaborate, citing ongoing negotiations with Ottawa, the province of Manitoba, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which is the only group known to be interested in taking over the site.

The closure has been portrayed by critics of the federal government as part of a broader attack on environmental science research, and Ms. Wynne seemingly tried to draw a deliberate contrast between her provincial Liberals and Stephen Harper's Conservatives. The ELA is very important to us as a government that believes in science, that believes in evidence," the Premier said, while specifically mentioning its recent research on climate change – something that others have suggested might have been behind its closure.

In a statement, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield said that Ottawa "welcome[s] Ontario's willingness to play an active role," but stressed that "the Federal Government has been leading negotiations with third parties in order to secure a new operator for the Experimental Lakes Area. "The federal government began tearing down buildings at the ELA last month, amid concerns that it was abandoning a unique facility that has previously performed world-renowned work examining the effects of contaminants such as mercury, acid rain and phosphorus.

The buildings being dismantled at the ELA were primarily used to provide housing for the scientists who worked there, and researchers have recently been barred from the site. Ottawa's decision caused experiments into emerging contaminants to be halted midstream.

Ottawa announced last May that it was closing the facility, which it said cost $2-million per year to operate, on the basis that it does not fit within the core mandate of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Work to dismantle it later began while a buyer was still being sought, and without the IISD – the only group known to be interested in taking it over – being informed in advance.

The governments of both Ontario and Manitoba, where the Freshwater Institute performs much of the work related to the ELA, have faced calls to help make up the funding.

Ontario NDP MPP Sarah Campbell, whose riding includes the ELA, has repeatedly pushed Ms. Wynne's government both in Question Period and in meetings with ministers to step in to save the ELA.

"It's nice to finally see a recognition on the part of the provincial government that this is a very important research facility," Ms. Campbell said Wednesday, while expressing concern that some important details – such as who will pay – have not yet been worked out.

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner also cheered the announcement, which he said he had pushed Ms. Wynne to move forward on in a meeting earlier this month.

"We all benefit from the freshwater research at the ELA that protect our lakes and rivers," Mr. Schreiner said in a statement.

Follow Adam Radwanski on Twitter: @aradwanskiOpens in a new window
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