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Scientists lash Harper government for pulling plug on Experimental Lakes Area

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Scientists from Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institute, and other elite research centres are condemning a decision by the Harper government to shut down a world-class freshwater research program.

A program called the Experimental Lakes Area, a region of 58 lakes near Kenora, Ont., that scientists have used for groundbreaking experiments, will be scrapped as part of federal budget cuts.

Those cuts come with 40 layoffs in Winnipeg's regional Fisheries and Oceans Canada office. Many of those who are being laid off are biologists, chemists and other scientists who form the ELA's core.

"I was pretty shocked," said Harvard University aquatic sciences Prof. Elsie Sunderland. "This is one of the foremost research projects and places to do research in the world. To have it shut down is just appalling. It's just embarrassing."

Before moving to Harvard, Sunderland, originally from Nova Scotia, worked for years creating policy at the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Research done at the experimental lakes on the effects of mercury on fish and waterways was discussed at the highest levels of the EPA and helped form the basis of new regulations on coal-fired power plant emissions. Those new rules became official in December.

Work on the lakes has also led to continent-wide policy shifts on acid rain, changes to the way hydro dams are built, a ban on phosphorus in detergents and huge advancements in the battle against the green algae that fouls Lake Winnipeg beaches every summer.

Scientists deliberately pollute all or part of a lake to measure the long-term effects on an entire complex ecosystem, allowing a huge breadth of research that could never be done by studying piecemeal samples of mud and water. Then, they let the lake return to its natural state.

This summer, ELA staff and researchers from Trent University were slated to begin a new long-term project on the effects of nanoparticles, an emerging multi-billion-dollar technology, on waterways and fish.

Specifically, scientists were planning to add micro-particles of silver, woven now into socks and underwear to kill bacteria, to a lake to measure the effects on the ecology.

Federal officials say the ELA no longer "aligned with the department's mandate and is not responding to our research priorities." Ottawa hopes a university or the provinces will take over funding the project.

"It makes more sense to allow it to be owned and operated by those who will benefit from this unique research facility," said Erin Filliter, spokeswoman for federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield.

But scientists say transferring control of the program and its lakes to a university isn't ideal. Schools aren't in the business of conducting decades-long research. And the liability involved in deliberately contaminating a lake may be too risky and too bureaucratically complicated for a school or non-profit research foundation to take on. Only a government could get away with it, and scientists say, if the ELA ends, there may never be anything like it again in the world.

Manitoba Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh said Friday he is "profoundly concerned" about the demise of the ELA.

"The ELA has incubated some of the world's greatest research on water and helped create some of the world's leading scientists," said Mackintosh.

On Friday, the province advised the Tories of its opposition to the decision to kill the ELA. And Mackintosh said discussions have already begun with Ontario on how the provinces might work together to save the program, as well as with Canadian and international scientists who have expressed outrage at the decision.

"I was stunned," said Cynthia Gilmour, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland.

"The ELA has contributed to environmental policy for 40 years, and the long-term records alone on temperature and ice cover are absolutely invaluable."

Gilmour has long been part of the ELA's mercury project. A photo of the ELA lake where mercury research is underway appears on the front page of Gilmour's departmental website.

David Krabbenhoft, a Wisconsin-based geochemist with the United States Geological Survey, who also worked for years on the mercury project, said the research was specifically designed to answer a vexing policy question -- what real good would it do to crack down on mercury emissions when the Earth's soil and water are already contaminated with centuries of mercury buildup?

By deliberately adding mercury to a lake and to the surrounding watershed and watching the effects for a decade, researchers found that, in fact, curtailing emissions does a world of good. Historical mercury contamination is often of the 'retired' variety and waterways recover surprisingly fast if mercury is removed as a contaminant.

"No other study anywhere in the world could have made that observation," said Krabbenhoft. "Frankly, I am disappointed at the lost opportunity to continue these scientific advancements."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Experimental Lakes Area by the numbers

  • Founded in 1968
  • 58 lakes used for research
  • Approximately $2-million annual budget (includes $900,000 in annual operating expenses and roughly 15 to 20 core staff)
  • 745 peer-reviewed scientific articles produced based on ELA research

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2012 A4

History

Updated on Saturday, May 19, 2012 at 10:19 AM CDT: corrects headline, cutline to Experimental Lakes Area

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