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Experimental Lakes buyer found: coalition

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OTTAWA -- The Coalition to Save ELA says the sale of the unique freshwater research facility is imminent.

Diane Orihel, head of the coalition, said Friday sources close to the task force looking at what to do with the Experimental Lakes Area have said a private buyer is lined up and the transfer of ownership is likely to happen any day.

"We're expecting an offer from (the Department of Fisheries and Oceans) to a potential buyer," Orihel said.

A spokeswoman for acting fisheries minister Gail Shea did not respond Friday when asked about the development. Shea is filling in for Keith Ashfield, who is recovering from a heart attack.

Orihel would not say who the buyer is other than it is not a university or another organization that would have independent scientists.

Coalition members say the integrity of research at the ELA must be protected. The ELA, which comprises 58 lakes about 50 kilometres east of Kenora, allows scientists to conduct research on entire lakes at the only facility of its kind in the world. Over the last four decades, it has helped researchers understand and address issues such as acid rain, phosphorus-caused algae blooms, the impact of hydroelectric dams and the impact of mercury.

Last May, Ottawa announced it would end its $2-million annual funding of the ELA in April 2013 and was actively seeking someone to take it over.

Orihel, a PhD student who completed her master's thesis at the ELA, is adamant the only way the ELA can survive intact is if it is kept in government hands. Any private ownership would restrict the independence of the scientists, she said.

A group of 15 scientists from across Canada wrote to Environment Minister Peter Kent Friday asking him to intervene to stop the sale. The group says if the ELA doesn't fit the mandate of the Department of Fisheries any longer, it certainly fits with the mandate of Environment Canada.

"We are writing today to urge you to take immediate action to stop your government from committing a grave error that would have dire consequences for Canada's ability to secure the health of our lakes and the sustainability of our freshwater resources," the letter states. The ELA is the "ideal facility for understanding today's threats to Canada's water resources from mining, oil and gas extraction, aquaculture and other forms of ongoing development," it adds.

In June, the government appeared ready to transfer ownership of the ELA to a university or private business for only $1. The facility includes 40,000 square feet of research and living space in 19 buildings. In the last decade, Ottawa has invested $3.5 million in the facilities, including $850,000 for three new labs in 2009.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 A4

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