The Ontario government is proposing regulations that would allow scientists to legally conduct experiments at a world-renowned outdoor freshwater laboratory where no new research has been done since the federal government pulled out of an operating agreement five months ago.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development, a public policy research group based in Winnipeg, hopes to take over the management of the 40-year-old Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario, which has produced groundbreaking studies on the effects of pollutants such as acid rain, mercury and phosphates.
The ELA was slated to close after the federal Department of Fisheries, which operated the station on land and lakes owned by Ontario, announced in 2012 that the work conducted there was no longer within the scope of its mandate.
Negotiations continue around transferring the facility to the IISD. But the experiments, which often involve injecting pollutants into the lakes to observe the effects, were halted last September when the federal government ended an agreement with the province that sanctioned the manipulations.
The IISD insisted new rules were needed to allow the work to continue without breaking environmental law. So scientists expressed cautious optimism late last week when Ontario's Environment Ministry posted a set of proposed regulations to authorize experimentation.
"The proposal sets out criteria that must be met for experiments to be carried out, such as monitoring and remediation plans, and controls to minimize adverse effects and prevent off-site impacts," said Kate Jordan, spokeswoman for the provincial ministry.
"The posting gives stakeholders and the public an opportunity to comment on the proposal and the ministry will consider all feedback before moving forward."
Matthew McCandless, the ELA project manager at the IISD, said it is "fantastic" that the province is moving ahead with regulations. "We're on the road," he said. "There still has yet to be an agreement but this was a precondition that we needed."
Mr. McCandless said significant discussions took place over the Christmas holidays on transferring the ELA to the IISD. "With regard to a specific timeline, these things seem to run their own course. But we are proceeding on the assumption that we will be the operator for the 2014 research season," he said.
One of the whole-lake experiments that was cancelled last year as a result of the turmoil at the ELA would have assessed the effects of silver nanoparticles – tiny particles of silver that are found in hundreds of household products including clothing – on freshwater ecosystems. Mr. McCandless said the new regulations would allow that research to proceed.
Maggie Xenopoulos, an aquatic ecologist at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., who is involved in the silver nanoparticles study, said in an e-mail on Monday that the proposed regulations are a positive step.
"But there is still some uncertainty on whether and when we are going to be able to go forward," she said. "Our study, which has been postponed by over a year, would not be able to withstand any more substantial delays. Our hope is to start this coming May but whether this will happen still remains unclear to me."