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Feds, Winnipeg think-tank sign memo over ELA

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Scientists were dismayed by the Harper government's move to wind down the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario.

MIKE APORIUS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Scientists were dismayed by the Harper government's move to wind down the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario. Photo Store

OTTAWA – The federal government has reached an agreement to transfer the Experimental Lakes Area to a Winnipeg-based environmental think-tank.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development has been in discussions with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans since last fall. Today they signed a memorandum of understanding, referred to by the government as "a major milestone."

This step doesn’t actually transfer the program yet, but outlines how the negotiations to do so will proceed. In the meantime, Ottawa will provide support for some work this summer so scientists with active research at the ELA site in northwestern Ontario can continue their work uninterrupted.

Sources close to ELA said ELA scientists in Winnipeg were called into a meeting to tell them the good news, and others were phoned, to let them know they will be able to continue their experiments on the site this summer.

IISD has not said a word about its interest in ELA though its involvement in negotiations has been what one source called "the worst kept secret in Ottawa."

A confidentiality agreement between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and IISD kept either side from specifically mentioning the negotiations. Ottawa has said only it was working on finding someone to take it over.

The negotiations need to sort out issues such as operational support, data sharing and the transfer of material assets, as well as an agreement on who will be responsible for remediation of the site if ELA should ever close.

A spokesman for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said the estimate to remediate the site is between $600,000 and $1.2 million. Erin Filliter said rumours that it would be as much as $50 million were "thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly false."

ELA is a series of 58 lakes near Kenora, Ont., used by scientists for the last four decades to conduct freshwater research. It has been a program of the federal department of fisheries and oceans, but last May Ottawa announced it would not be funding it past the end of March 2013.

A few weeks ago, Ontario suddenly announced it was willing to provide some funding for the program but wanted Ottawa, IISD and Manitoba at the table as well. Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said this week if Ottawa is at the table, Manitoba would be willing to provide some resources for ELA as well.

However nobody has said how much they will offer, and in the meantime no work can continue at ELA.

The facility has been shuttered since the end of March and scientists haven’t been able to go near the site to work on their experiments.

Some work has been ongoing for years and experiments could be ruined if the scientists can’t monitor their work this summer.

This announcement is a relief to many scientists who consider ELA a one-of-a-kind facility. Scientists and environmental groups from around the world have written to the Canadian government asking it to reconsider its decision to close the program.

"They look pretty happy," said one source, of ELA scientists after they were told of the latest development.

History

Updated on Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 2:50 PM CDT: Updates estimate to remediate the site.

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