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Tories under fire for pulling plug on freshwater-research funding

Atlantic salmon fry are released into the Humber River near Toronto on May 30, 2011.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Conservative government is facing growing pressure to reverse its decision to end funding for the Experimental Lakes Area, a unique research zone in Northwestern Ontario where scientists can gauge the impact of pollution on ecosystems.

At a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday, New Democratic Party MPs criticized the government's budget-cutting decision, even as a group of internationally-renowned scientists urge the Ottawa to keep the centre open.

"The Conservative decision to stop funding this program again demonstrates their total disregard for the importance of scientific research," NDP fisheries critic Robert Chisholm told a news conference on Parliament Hill.

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He said the ELA program supports international research that is essential for the monitoring and understanding of freshwater ecosystems and our fisheries, and cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Fisheries and Oceans told ELA scientists their funding would cease at the end of the fiscal year – April 1, 2013 – but a departmental official told The Globe and Mail the government is working aggressively to find a new operator in the hopes the centre can continue its work.

Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said scientific research remains the "backbone" of his department's mandate, and that freshwater research at other locations will meet its needs.

ELA scientists say they've seen no evidence that universities and agencies that support research there are being encouraged to take it over. And they say universities and provincial governments are undergoing budget austerity just as Ottawa is.

The cancellation of the program will have major consequences that will put the health of Canadians, our water and our environment at risk, deputy NDP environment critic Anne Minh Thu Quach told reporters.

"The Conservatives must stop slashing and reducing our environmental protection programs. It's the health of Canadians that's at stake," she said.

In an open letter Mr. Ashfield and Environment Minister Peter Kent, eight Canadian and international scientists said the ELA is irreplaceable as a place to do research on the impact of pollution on freshwater ecosystems.

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"Canadians need and deserve an internationally renowned freshwater and fisheries research facility," they said in the letter.

"We strongly urge the government of Canada to reconsider the decision to close Canada's ELA, and recognize the importance of the ELA to the government's mandate to study, preserve and protect aquatic ecosystems."

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Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

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