The future of scientific research in the Experimental Lake Area remains murky as critics question whether the federal government is serious about finding an outside organization to take over the outdoor laboratory.
Federal funding for the ELA program expired Sunday despite last-ditch attempts by protesters and opposition groups to extend the funding. It is not clear what will happen to the current experiments or whether scientists will be able to access the facility.
The ELA is a unique program that allows scientists to conduct experiments on 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario near Kenora. Last May, Ottawa announced it will cut the $2-million operating budget for the ELA as of April 2013.
Scientists around the world have decried the cuts, claiming it has helped lead to public policy in critical areas including acid rain, mercury poisoning and phosphorus buildup.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development is said to be negotiating with the federal government to take over the ELA operations.
Officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans could not be reached for comment on Monday, and officials from the International Institute for Sustainable Development declined to comment.
"I have a hunch (the Department of Fisheries and Oceans) is not serious about negotiating anything," freshwater scientist David Schindler said Monday. "This government is clearly on a path where they want to cut off environmental research of any type."
Schindler, who founded the ELA and directed the program for two decades, said scientists typically start measuring stream flow this time of year and the ELA is at "maximum capacity" by the end of May, when university researchers from Canada and the U.S. head to the area to start or continue ongoing experiments.
Schindler said one of his colleagues at the University of Alberta is midway through his research on mercury, and another group from Trent University was about to start a new project on silver particles this spring.
Schindler said he does not know whether or not they'll be able to move ahead with their research. "They've been very secretive about it," he said.
Prof. Britt Hall, an associate professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Regina and head of the Coalition to Save ELA, said she's heard that at least two research groups have received word they will not be able to conduct research this summer -- including Trent University.
Hall said scientists warned the federal government their decision to cut funding in 2013 would not allow enough time to transition the program to another operator, and the fact that demolition work has started on cabins at the ELA site is a sign the federal government is not trying in good faith to find a new operator.
Two weeks ago, the Department and Fisheries and Oceans told the Free Press the cabins were not being demolished yet.
"There's been some indications they've been dragging their feet. Negotiations have been going at a glacial rate, according to some people in the know," Hall said, noting the coalition does not plan to stop fighting for the research facility to remain open.