Skip to main content

An aerial photograph shows one of the many bodies of water used for research in Northewestern Ontario's government-run Experimental Lakes Area

For six years, Cynthia Gilmour, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, led a research team that annually poured a teaspoon of mercury isotope, diluted in water, into a small, remote lake in Northwestern Ontario.

The international project was being conducted in the federally funded Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a unique outdoor laboratory for ecosystem research consisting of 58 lakes and their drainage areas.

Dr. Gilmour and her colleagues from the United States and Canada wanted to determine the environmental impacts of new deposits of mercury – a powerful brain toxin – into a lake that already had high background levels. The ELA was the one place in the world where they could do that.

The centre has hosted a number of groundbreaking research projects over its 55 years, including major advances in the understanding of lake acidification and eutrophication – the destruction of a body of water through the addition of nutrients such as phosphates and nitrates.

Now, as part of its spending restraint, the Harper government has announced that Fisheries and Oceans Canada will stop funding the Experimental Lakes Area and close the world-renowned research centre by next April if a new operator cannot be found.

Supporters from Canada and across the world are signing an online petition and writing letters urging the government to reverse that decision, arguing the centre is irreplaceable.

Former top researchers at the centre say the decision is emblematic of the government's anti-science approach to environmental policy and its emphasis on resource development with little regard for impacts on the ecosystem unless they affect commercially important fish stocks.

"I think they are uninterested in the environment and scientific research into the environment," said John Rudd, who served as chief scientist at ELA and now consults for private labs. "They don't want to see things that might get in the way of promoting industry."

Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield appears unwilling to reconsider, and officials said the budget cuts were part of a priority-setting exercise in a time of restraint.

"The minister understands that science is the backbone of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the freshwater research conducted at other sites across the country will satisfy the current needs of the department," said Mr. Ashfield's spokeswoman, Barbara Mottram, in an e-mailed statement. "We look forward to transferring the facility to a third party that will benefit from this unique location."

Departmental officials are "working aggressively" to find a group to take over the funding, said David Gillis, director-general of the department's Ocean and Ecosystem Science division. He said the operating costs amount to about $700,000 a year, though former chief scientists say the baseline budget is more like $3-million annually when core researchers are included.

Dr. Rudd said it would be difficult to find another organization to operate the centre. Universities are strapped for cash, while the province of Ontario is dealing with a deficit challenge even greater than Ottawa's.

It's not the first time the centre has faced a possible closure.

In the 1970s, the Liberal government under Pierre Trudeau cut its funding, but it was rescued by fledgling oil sands companies that financed research into the impact of sulphur dioxide emissions on the acidification of lakes.

In the 1990s, under the Liberal government program review, the Department of Fisheries was unsuccessful in its attempt to transfer responsibility for the ELA – but not its budget – to the Department of Environment.

Its supporters say the research in real-world conditions actually saves money for governments and industry by avoiding costly mistakes that result from ineffectual policy and wrong-headed regulation.

David Schindler, the University of Alberta biologist who has made waves with his research into the impact of the oil sands, has also been affiliated with the ELA, doing work on eutrophication. After studying the effect of both phosphates and nitrates on algae production, he advised the City of Winnipeg not to undertake an expensive effort to remove nitrates from sewage because the benefit would be negligible.

In the mercury-related research, scientists found that newly introduced mercury enters the food chain far more quickly than existing sources and that lakes and aquatic life recover quickly when deposits stop.

Dr. Gilmour said the research – primarily funded by U.S. institutions – helped persuade American regulators to force utilities to remove the element from the emissions of coal-fired power plants, with the expectation the move would save tens of billions of dollars annually in health costs associated with mercury poisoning. Canadian regulators have yet to respond.

In a letter written last week, Dr. Gilmour asked Mr. Ashfield to reconsider the decision to close the centre.

"By shutting ELA you remove a critical tool for finding the most reasonable and cost-effective solutions to national and international environmental issues," she wrote. "The small federal investment in the research station has been returned thousands of times over in public and ecosystem health."