OTTAWA — Just as Ottawa is looking at what it would take to shut down the Experimental Lakes Area, Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent told the House of Commons Monday his government does not want to see the ELA actually close.
"We have made it very clear to all stakeholders and interested parties that the intent is not to close the Experimental Lakes Area," Kent said. "Environment Canada will assist the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in finding a suitable organization or a consortium to manage operations so that research by the academic community can continue."
He also acknowledged his own department makes use of ELA research.
"Environment Canada is now using the very important science that we drew from the experimental lakes program to look at acid rain situations in other lakes in other parts of the country that are threatened by expanding development," Kent said.
However, last week, scientists from the ELA were told there were 10 Public Works officials on-site to conduct three separate surveys, including a building appraisal, a building-condition report and a designated-substances and hazardous-materials survey.
"These surveys are being conducted in order to provide up-to-date facility information for moving forward with either a successful transfer of the facility, mothballing or decommissioning of the site," the email read.
The Experimental Lakes Area is a network of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario that has been one large, living laboratory for aquatic research since 1968. It is the only facility in the world that allows experiments on entire bodies of water and its findings have driven public policy on everything from phosphorus in dish soap to hydroelectric dam construction.
The federal government announced last May it would be cutting off the ELA’s $2-million annual funding as of April 2013. While Kent’s comments appear more nuanced than some past statements, the government confirmed Monday it has no plans to change its mind and continue to fund the ELA. "We have made the decision, the experimental lakes will be ending as a federal facility," wrote a spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, the senior minister on the file.
The Free Press has confirmed officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans met last week with representatives from as many as six universities and the Manitoba government, as well as at least one representative from the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development.
"This was a productive meeting that has set the stage for further discussions by the parties," said a spokeswoman for the department. It’s believed Ottawa wants a proposal in place by November or it will move to close the site.
Kent made his remarks under questioning by NDP environment critic Megan Leslie. Leslie compared the government’s withdrawal from funding scientific research to tobacco company executives in the 1950s refusing to hear experts suggest cigarettes were bad for people.
"Stopping the study of pollution isn’t going to make it go away," she said.
Diane Orihel, director of the Coalition to Save ELA, said Monday Kent is finally acknowledging the government makes use of ELA data, and that goes against earlier statements that research at the ELA no longer fits the government’s mandate.
Orihel said the only acceptable option is to keep the ELA in public hands. She said an oil company recently contacted her about taking over the ELA for 10 to 15 years to do research, but the firm said all the results would be considered proprietary information.
Research conducted at the ELA needs to be public and owned by the public so companies cannot decide which information is released and which is kept hidden, Orihel said.
"If ELA is transferred out and privatized, it would be a disaster."