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Shutting lake research lab ‘palpable nonsense,’ scientists tell Ottawa

Canada's Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 14, 2012.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Canada's freshwater scientists say there is virtually no chance the federal government will find a new operator to prevent the closing of its Experimental Lakes Area, a unique environmental laboratory consisting of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario.

In a letter to Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, Jules Blais, president of the Canadian Society of Limnologists, said the government's cuts to funding for post-secondary research have ensured that no university can take over the research centre.

"The inescapable conclusion is that your government has no real interest in transferring the site to an alternate operator, assertions to the contrary notwithstanding," he wrote.

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Supporters also question whether the federal government will actually save money by eliminating funding of about $3-million a year and shutting down the facility. Under an agreement with Ontario, Ottawa is responsible for returning the site to its natural state once it is no longer being used for research, a process that will require expensive remediation.

In his letter to the minister, Dr. Blais wrote that the Harper government's rationale for ending financial support for the site is "palpable nonsense."

International scientists and opposition MPs have urged the Harper government to reverse its decision, saying the Experimental Lakes Area is a unique site that allows researchers to manipulate ecosystems to test the impact of pollutants on fish and other aquatic life.

Critics say the decision is part of a broad-based disregard for scientific research and study of the environmental effects of industrial pollutants, a charge the government rejects.

Mr. Ashfield has said the ELA's work does not fit into the department's core mandate, which is to protect fish stocks and important habitats. But Dr. Blais wrote that protection of critical habitats is the central focus of the research centre.

Even if the Fisheries department is now only concerned with fish stocks that have commercial, recreational and aboriginal importance, "research at the ELA provides the scientific evidence required to manage commercial and recreational fisheries effectively and efficiently," he said.

The University of Ottawa biologist cited research that helped in the management of white fish – one of the most commercially important species in Canada – and of lake trout, a key recreational species

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In an emailed response to Dr. Blais' letter, DFO spokesman Frank Stanek said other research centres around the country will meet the department's needs.

He said federal officials have had discussions with counterparts in Ontario, which owns the land, and will shortly be in touch with "potentially interested parties" with the goal of having a new operator in place by next April.

The Fisheries official played down concerns about remediation, saying environmental disturbance is kept to a minimum.

"A project can only go forward if there is an approved plan to restore the lakes to a healthy condition," he said. "Resorations plans for ongoing projects already exist."

Scientists at ELA are also doing work on the implications of a warming and drier climate on fresh water ecosystems, and on the environmental effects of nanomaterials., which are increasingly being used in textiles and industrial processes.

In an interview, Dr. Blais cited groundbreaking research on nano-silver – which is used on clothing and as an antibacterial agent but is highly toxic. Scientists at ELA have demonstrated the nanomaterial is absorbed more quickly into the food chain than traditional industrial substances.

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"We are releasing all this material into the environment and have no idea what they are doing to the ecosystem," he said. "This is an emerging industry and there is absolutely no background information to tell us what its impact will be."

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About the Author
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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