OTTAWA — More than 11,500 Canadians have asked the federal government to reconsider its decision to close down the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora.
The petition, bearing 11,514 signatures, will be presented to the government in Ottawa today. They were collected in just 17 days by Save ELA, an advocacy group founded after the government announced it was cutting the ELA’s $2 million annual funding as of next year.
"The ELA is vital," said Save ELA founder Diane Orihel. "It helps to ensure Canadians have safe drinking water, clean lakes and healthy fish."
ELA was founded in the 1950s as a unique program conducting environmental research on entire aquatic ecosystems using 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario. Scientists deliberately pollute the lakes with various substances such as mercury, phosphorus or estrogen and see what the impact is on lakes and aquatic species of human behaviour. Research there has led to global changes in policies around things like acid rain and hydroelectric dams.
The research facility is the only one of its kind in the world and support to save the program has poured in from scientists around the globe including Europe, Israel and the United States.
Dr. Jules Blais, a biologist at the University of Ottawa, said Tuesday research at the ELA has been hugely beneficial to the development of better and more affordable water treatment plants and to protecting the stocks of commercial fisheries. Research at ELA which showed there is little ecological benefit to removing nitrogen from wastewater led to huge cost savings in the development of treatment plants, said Blais. That includes $300 million in savings for Lake Winnipeg alone and in Europe, nearly $385 billion CDN in savings for treatment in the Baltic system.
"Our lakes and rivers are in better shape now than in the 50s and 60s because of the research done at ELA," said Blais.
Opposition parties have united to try to convince the government to change its mind on ELA but Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield doesn’t appear to be budging on it.
"We understand that important work has been done at the facility, but we are focussing our activities on work that informs DFO’s fisheries management and habitat management decisions," said Ashfield’s communications director Erin Filliter. "The work being conducted at other freshwater research facilities across the country will be able to more than adequately meet the research needs of DFO."
She said the government still hopes another "research agent" will be willing to take on the work at ELA.
Scientists from around the world dispute the idea that any other research facility in the world matches the work done at ELA and that anyone will be willing to take it on.
"(The ELA) is to environmental science what the Hubble telescope is to astronomy," said Blais. "I just don’t see (someone else taking it over) as being a possibility. I think the ELA is national in scope. The role of the federal government is to protect fisheries, to protect the environment and that’s what the federal government should be doing."
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called the decision politically motivated by a government that is no longer interested in what science can do.
"Our minister of science stands firmly for ignorance," she said. "(This decision) reverberates globally as scientists around the world and policy makers around the world wonder, what made Canada suddenly go stupid?"