OTTAWA -- Advocates for the Experimental Lakes Area delivered a petition with 23,000 signatures to the federal government Thursday, hoping to bolster its case to save the unique research program.
The petition calls for the government to recognize the importance of the ELA to its own mandate to protect fresh water and to reverse its decision to stop funding the ELA next year.
"One of the most serious challenges we will face in the coming years is the quantity and quality of fresh water," said Save ELA director Diane Orihel.
The number of signatures on the petition has more than doubled since mid-June, when the first 11,514 signatures were presented to the government.
The ELA is a group of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario used as a research site for scientists to conduct experiments on whole bodies of water. There is no other program like it in the world and scientists from the United States, Europe and Australia have called on the federal government to keep the program alive.
However, as part of its budget cutbacks, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced in May it will stop funding the ELA's $2-million annual operating budget, effective in April 2013. The government is trying to find another agency to take over the ELA. If it does not, the program will close.
Public works staff visited the site earlier this month to figure out how it could be decommissioned if necessary.
NDP fisheries critic Robert Chisholm said he wants Ottawa to clarify its position on the ELA, saying last week Environment Minister Peter Kent clouded the waters when he told the House of Commons the government did not want to see the project close.
"It certainly sounded like he was beginning to equivocate," Chisholm said.
He said he's heard from Conservative MPs they are feeling the pressure to reverse the decision on the ELA after months of public criticism.
However, a spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said there is no uncertainty in the government's position.
"We have made the decision," Barbara Mottram wrote in an email. "The Experimental Lakes will be ending as a federal facility."
Mottram said the government has invested $8 billion in new scientific research in the last five years.
Ashfield's office has said the ELA is closing because it no longer coincides with the federal government's current mandate.
Orihel said she'd like to know what the government's new mandate is if it is not to protect the quality and quantity of fresh water for generations of Canadians to come.
She said the only acceptable outcome is for the ELA to remain a publicly funded, publicly administered program to ensure the research is done for the public good and is not done by special-interest groups.