Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Keep ELA open as talks go on

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As if to punctuate the waste of closing down its world-renowned freshwater research hub in northwestern Ontario, the federal government is refusing to allow federally funded scientists into the Experimental Lakes Area this summer. That will jeopardize a host of experiments underway, as the research area, in effect, sits fallow.

The Harper government is in negotiations to turn over the ELA, reportedly to the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Those talks may take more months than is ostensibly left to the ELA -- the government said last year that by March 31, 2013, the research station would be closed or under a new owner.

Transferring ownership of the ELA, a $2-million-a -year operation that has spawned award-winning environmental science in its 44-year history, is complicated. Under an agreement with Ontario, which owns the land and 58 lakes, the ELA operates on condition that Ottawa assumes liability. That ensures full restoration of lakes or land that are purposely altered to study environmental impact.

Decommissioning the ELA is currently estimated to cost as much as $50 million, a responsibility few third parties would want to shoulder. Which government, or new owner, would take on such liability once Ottawa bows out?

Federal departments have continued to issue expensive research grants to government and academic scientists operating at the ELA, just east of Kenora. That irony nonetheless underscores the fact the government recognizes the real value of this science -- tracking the effect of atmospheric mercury and probing the potential environmental impact of the popular nanoparticles.

The Harper Tories have done a poor job explaining their decision that this research centre, the only one of its kind in the world, is somehow and suddenly outside the federal government's core interest.

The decision to close the ELA makes no economic sense, any way one looks at it. But to risk long-running, expensive research by barring scientists from their outdoor labs as transfer negotiations continue is the very definition of waste. Ottawa should open the ELA to permit that work to proceed until it finds an appropriate owner to operate a research station that should never have landed on the chopping block.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2013 A14

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