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Ottawa seeks new operator for freshwater research station

Scientists set up micro-meterological station on a raft in this undated photo from the Experimental Lakes Area research station in Northwestern Ontario.

Handout/The Canadian Press

The Fisheries department is talking to universities, scientists and provincial officials in an effort to find someone willing to take over a freshwater research station that's been operating in Northwestern Ontario for 50 years but no longer fits with government priorities.

Dave Gillis, the director general of ecosystem science in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, held a series of conference calls this week with university administrators and researchers, government scientists and provincial representatives to explore options for saving the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA).

But supporters of the research station, which is the only one of its kind in the world conducting long-term analysis of the effects of pollutants on freshwater ecosystems, say the prospects of passing the station to the province or a university are bleak.

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The Conservative government has said the station will close at the end of March next year if a new operator cannot be found. It is a decision that will save federal coffers about $2-million annually, but one that scientists say is motivated by the fact the ELA was producing data in climate change that could conflict with the government's interests in oil-sands development.

Drew Bodaly, a retired former head scientist at the Experimental Lakes Area a who is the president of a group called the Friends of the Experimental Lakes Area, was on one of the calls.

"The idea was to explore ideas about who the next operator, owner, scientific manager of the ELA might be," Dr. Bodaly said in a telephone interview.

"There are people that are probably willing," he said. "The Friends of the ELA is probably willing. The question is money. Where is the money going to come from?

"It would take a large trust fund to provide an annual return of $2-million to cover the station's operating costs," Dr. Bodaly explained. And "we think that the time frame between now and April 1 2013 is way too short to put something together and we're afraid of losing the expertise in the group."

There is also a myriad of other obstacles that could prevent the station from changing hands.

And, because the elimination of funding to the station was part of cuts to the Fisheries department that were contained in a recent omnibus budget bill, but not directly spelled out in that legislation, the scientists fighting to save the facility say Ottawa can change its mind even after the bill has been passed into law.

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Diane Orihel, a freshwater researcher who is the leader of the Coalition of Save ELA, said it is unlikely that any university will be willing to step up to the plate.

First, she said, there is a moratorium on the Major Resources Support Program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, which is the major federal funding body for scientific research in Canada. "So the one way in which the ELA could have been funded within the university system has also been cancelled," Ms. Orihel said.

Second, while the government says it will sell the ELA for $1, it is unlikely that any university would want to assume the liability for remediating the site should it ever be closed, Ms. Orihel said. Some estimates have suggested that could cost $50-million.

And third, she said, the research that university professors conduct is funded on three- to five-year time cycles. But the experiments that are conducted at the ELA take decades. Some the research has been ongoing since 1968.

ELA provides a core group of people who cover the whole ecosystem who are permanent and full time and devoted to it, said Ms. Orihel. "If you went to a university, you are not going to have that same kind of complete and comprehensive understanding of the ecosystem."

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