The federal government is making plans to mothball the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in northern Ontario because it hasn't yet found an organization willing to take over the world-renowned facility.
Money to run the giant outdoor laboratory is slated to run out on March 31. The federal government will relinquish control on Sept. 1 but won't do any science during the five-month period.
"The federal government has indicated that the facility will not be run by the federal government this summer. That said, it could be mothballed. It could be in cold lay-up and be ready to go in the future," Kevin Stringer, assistant deputy minister in charge of science for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), told the CBC.
He did say the government is in negotiations with a number of organizations who could potentially take over operation of the ELA. Stringer couldn't give any details because of the sensitivity of the talks.
ELA is an area of 58 small lakes in northwestern Ontario where DFO conducts experiments on whole bodies of water. The projects began in 1968. The research done there was instrumental in determining the causes and effects of acid rain. That research, in turn, led to the Acid Rain Treaty between Canada and the U.S. The decision to cut funding for the facility was made in the 2012 budget. It costs about $2 million a year to run the ELA.
'The experimental lakes area in Canada is like the Hadron Collider. There are some countries that have the Hadron Collider. Canada has the experimental lakes area'—Dr. Jules Blais, University of Ottawa biologist
The land and lakes of the ELA actually belong to the province of Ontario. The management of the facility was the federal government's responsibility. A memorandum of agreement between the two governments puts the responsibility for remediating the area on Ottawa. Essentially, Ottawa is on the hook for the whole cost of cleaning up the lakes, removing buildings and roads and returning the area to a pristine condition. Estimates of the cost are anywhere from a few million dollars to $50 million.
"We've been talking to Ontario about what would be required and those discussions are ongoing," said Stringer.
Scientists worry that a 44-year-long continuous record of data is going to be lost if the facility is closed down, not to mention a type of laboratory that exists nowhere else in the world.
"It is really one of Canada's top scientific contributions on the global scene. The Experimental Lakes Area in Canada is like the Hadron Collider. There are some countries that have the Hadron Collider. Canada has the Experimental Lakes Area," said Jules Blais, biology professor at the University of Ottawa and a board member of Save ELA, a group of concerned scientists who came together after the government announced its decision to axe the facility.
The federal opposition worried about what an interruption in ELA's data set will mean.
"The uncertainty is what's really going to kill the work that's been going on. It's a sin because the research, the evidence, that's conducted, that's gathered, has an influence globally," says Robert Chisholm, the NDP's fisheries critic.