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Selinger hopeful Ottawa will reconsider plan to close freshwater research centre

An aerial photograph of the lake used for the estrogen additions at the Experimental Lakes Area, northwestern Ontario.

Image courtesy of John Shearer/Handout

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger says the federal Environment Minister has offered "a glimmer of hope" that the federal Conservative government may reverse a decision to shut down a world-renowned freshwater research facility in Northern Ontario.

Mr. Selinger, who was attending a meeting of premiers in Halifax on Friday, said he met with Peter Kent at a major international environmental conference in Brazil in June where the two discussed the impending closure of the Experimental Lakes Area.

"We see it as incredibly valuable because of the contribution that the research has made to acid rain in the Great Lakes – no small issue – and, of course, to phosphorus and nitrification of lakes, including Lake Winnipeg," the Premier said in a telephone interview.

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"So we discussed the value of the research that goes on there," he said, "and he simply indicated that he is looking for ways and means that we can keep that research going. It wasn't specific as to how that could be done but I took it as a glimmer of hope."

As part of a slate of cost-cutting measures, the federal government says the research station – a 44-year-old program consisting of 58 small lakes and their drainage area – will be closed at the end of March next year unless a new operator can be found to take it over. The move will save Ottawa about $2-million a year.

Officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans say talks have begun with universities and other "interested parties," including the charitable "Friends of ELA," which raises money to support research there.

But scientists who are working to save the station say that time frame is too short to get a new operator in place. Some accuse the government of deliberately closing the station because researchers are looking at the effects of climate change on fresh water – findings that could work against a rapid expansion of development in the Alberta oil sands.

So the supporters of the Experimental Lakes Area were buoyed by Mr. Selinger's guarded optimism after his meeting with Mr. Kent.

But a spokesman for the minister said the government's position has not changed.

"In Rio, the Minister stated that we hope to transfer the facility to another research agent – as our government has stated since the decision was taken," Adam Sweet, Mr. Kent's press secretary, said Friday. "This is so that the important work can continue to be conducted by another party that will benefit from it."

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Gord Mackintosh, Manitoba's Minister of Conservation and Water Stewardship, and Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley have written to Mr. Kent and Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield to say the work conducted at the Experimental Lakes Area is relied upon by all Canadian bodies responsible for managing freshwater resources and many of their international counterparts.

And more than 18,000 Canadians have signed a petition to save the Experimental Lakes Area, which will be presented to the House of Commons this fall.

"Given the tremendous public backlash, it would be very wise for the Conservative Government to reconsider this decision – in the interest of all Canadians – and to prevent further political collateral damage to their party," said Diane Orihel, a PhD Candidate at the University of Alberta who is the Leader of the Coalition to Save ELA.

The ELA lies within the federal electoral district of Kenora – a riding currently held by Conservative Greg Rickford who recently declined a request to attend a public forum about the closure of the research station that was organized by the Coalition to Save ELA.

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