OTTAWA -- There is just over a month before federal funding for the Experimental Lakes Area is supposed to disappear -- but Ottawa will still not say if it will extend the program while negotiating for another organization to take over the project.
The ELA is a federal program run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The offices are in Winnipeg and the laboratories and the 58 lakes where experiments are conducted are near Kenora. Last May, DFO told the program's employees it would stop providing the $2-million annual funding as of the 2013 fiscal year.
That deadline is March 31, but the employees are in limbo. While all were warned their jobs may be affected, none has yet actually received a notice that they are about to be declared surplus.
Ottawa has been negotiating for months with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, hoping the IISD will agree to take over the program. However, neither will say what is happening with the talks.
Before Christmas, a stumbling block was the fact Ottawa is on the hook for returning all the lakes to their original state if the program is shut down. The lakes belong to the Ontario government and are used for ELA through an agreement with Queen's Park.
It has been estimated the cost to decommission the site would be anywhere from $20 million to $50 million, and few if any bodies want to take over that liability.
A spokesman for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield referred questions about the situation to the department. Departmental spokeswoman Melanie Carkner said negotiations are confidential and staffing discussions are "ongoing."
Independent MP Bruce Hyer said the government isn't saying what's happening because it has been surprised by the level of push-back.
"I suspect they are embarrassed by this," he said. "They've screwed up big here."
Hyer has been asking repeatedly for the government to postpone the closure while a suitable new operator is located. He said for the government not to extend it and start paying millions more to decommission the site makes no sense. The government has never said whether or not it will postpone.
Last weekend, the potential loss of the ELA was one of the chief topics of conversation at the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography in New Orleans. Many of the scientists reportedly wore "Save Our ELA" T-shirts, and the impending closure came up in numerous speeches and keynote addresses.
Over the last four decades, ELA research has helped answer numerous questions about pollution and the impacts on freshwater bodies from everything from hydro dams to mercury and hormones. Dozens of scientists from around the world have written the government asking it to reconsider closing the program.