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Future of Experimental Lakes Area Still Uncertain

The future of Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area is still up in the air, but the Conservative government has already begun dismantling the cabins that house the scientists who come to study at the world-renowned research facility.

With only two weeks left until the government is set to revoke funding, it’s still unclear whether the facility will be transferred to new management or shut down completely.
But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ decision to quietly start removing windows and doors from researchers’ quarters, as well as personal possessions, indicates the desire to be rid of the place may be stronger than the push to put it in new hands.

With the ELA set to begin research into the effects of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), one of the primary toxins produced by tar sands development, it’s not hard to imagine why.

The Harper government announced in May of last year, with the release of the federal budget, that it would be withdrawing funding for the unique facility. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) spokesperson Melanie Carkner said that it would no longer conduct research that required the use of whole lakes and ecosystems. In a statement, the DFO added that, “every attempt will be made to transfer the ownership of the facility to universities or provinces.” But with less than two weeks left on the clock, the government has still not found anyone to take over.

At a time when the Alberta tar sands are under heavy scrutiny and people on both sides of the border are awaiting President Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, the site's closure is, at best, suspect. While the federal government stands to save at most $3 million – a drop in the bucket in the context of the overall budget – shutting down the site could end up costing Canadians in the realm of tens of millions of dollars in decontamination costs.

In addition to influencing decisions about the future of the tar sands, proposed ELA research into PAHs would be relevant to policies regulating the burning of fossil fuels and the transport of petrochemical products. Information released this year by Environment Canada has already indicated the damage caused by tar sands mining is significantly more wide spread than previously thought.

Although, oil and gas isn’t the only industry being held to account by ELA research.

Another project on the chopping-block is an experiment designed to determine whether eutrophication—the algae overgrowth that leads to oxygen shortages and fish death—is caused by phosphorus in detergent products or by carbon and nitrogen. The project, ongoing since the station’s inception, has been crucial to understanding the the role detergent plays in the problem, convincing global policy-makers to implement regulations to control phosphorus deposits.

Further research into the impact of the tar sands on the environment could likely invite stricter regulations on the oil and gas industry, something that isn’t conducive to the Harper government’s plan to triple tar sands production in the coming decades.

However the problem goes beyond the loss of the facility for new research. Without the continuity of research the station provides—the ELA has been in operation since 1968—new research will in effect be starting from scratch.

Carol Kelly, a scientist researching at the ELA for more than 30 years, told Postmedia that if researchers are forced to collect data elsewhere, they will be starting back at zero with nothing with which to compare the new information.

“When that record stops, there’s no replacement,” Kelly said. And without new information from those same bodies of water going forward, 45 years’ worth of data will become worthless.

Image credit: dfo-mp.gc.ca

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