Toxic lake contamination from Alberta oilsands development is worse than previously believed, a new study suggests.

The research, conducted by scientists at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., indicates that half a century of development in the Athabasca oilsands is affecting water systems nearly 100 kilometres away from major development areas.

"Combined with the effects of climate change and other environmental stressors to aquatic ecosystems, these results are worrying," says Queen's biology professor John Smol, one of the study's authors.

"Given that oilsands development will undoubtedly increase, we are certain that these trends will accelerate, and increased development will likely impact ecosystems farther from the current pollution sources."

What makes the results more worrisome, he said, is that a decision by the Harper government is going to make further research on the effects of these types of stresses and contaminants more difficult.

Bill C-38, passed the Tories in the summer of 2012, included a plan to stop funding the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a network of 58 lakes and research facilities located in northwestern Ontario. The world-famous freshwater research site, founded in 1968, has allowed researchers to study how large-scale aquatic ecosystems respond to everything from climate change to construction and pollution.

Scientists say the lakes have been instrumental in helping them understand how to minimize environmental impacts and facilitate recovery in a real-world setting.

"What you do in a flask isn't quite the same as what happens in the lake," Smol said. "Acid rain, metal contamination, other kinds of contamination, climate change: those are about the four things you hear about from the oilsands, and that was all ongoing work at ELA — fundamental work."

The ELA has influenced international policy through a variety of discoveries, such as linking algae growth to the phosphate in detergents. Scientists from around the globe have used the site to perform a plethora of studies such as measuring the effects of birth control hormones in water on aquatic wildlife and to gauge the impact of mercury emissions released by electrical utilities.

"It's been a major source of information," said Smol. "Not just for Canadians but for the rest of the world.

"It put [Canada] on the map as major leaders in this type of work."

Shrinking budget

Cuts to the $1.7-billion budget of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the department in charge of the lakes, mean the ELA's annual $2-million stipend runs out at end of the fiscal year, on March 31, 2013.

Smol doesn't think money was the issue.

"The bang for the buck was unbelievable," he said. "I think most Canadians are willing to pay a penny a month or whatever that comes up to, to have clean water."

Dr. Jim Elser, a researcher from Arizona State University who has carried out work in the Experimental Lakes Area, said the decision was politically motivated.

"There's a governmental approach that doesn't want to get data that gives answers it doesn't like to hear," he said. "The best way not to worry about what might or might not be degrading the environment is not to measure anything."

Smol echoes these concerns: "I think the real problem is that people like myself, people in the ELA working in environmental sciences produce inconvenient data, very 'pesky' data."

He said the data might result in money being spent to sort out a problem, but the research ultimately saves billions by preventing long-term problems.

Transfer of ELA a possibility

Since the cuts were announced, the ELA's future has been uncertain. A transfer of ownership could prevent closure, but the government has kept details closely guarded.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada declined the CBC's request for an interview.

"Science is the backbone of Fisheries and Oceans Canada," wrote DFO media relations representative Frank Stanek in an email. "Scientific research at other freshwater research facilities across the country will more than adequately meet the research needs of DFO."

Stanek added that discussions to transfer the facility were ongoing but that the department would be unable to provide any further details "for reasons of confidentiality."

Dr. Ray Hesslein, an award-winning limnologist and former ELA director, said the successful transfer of the lakes' operations to a suitable operator would require an appropriate transition package from the government.

"Whether that will pan out successfully depends on the outcome of negotiations," he said. "The timing is very tight now."

But who qualifies as a suitable operator has been the object of debate, and scientists maintain the best option is no transfer at all.

"This isn't something you sell, it's a national treasure," Smol said. "This is what governments are supposed to do, they're supposed to protect our waters and understand how to keep them for future generations."

While Hesslein said he would also prefer the program remain federally funded, he is optimistic an independent operator could bring positive change.

"Because of the different mandates of different government departments, there have been limitations on the kind of work that could be done at the Experimental Lakes Area," he said. "I think it's possible that under an independent operator, there might be a broader spectrum of experiments and topics that could be addressed."

Growing issues

With the country's oilsands production expected to double by 2030, Smol said it's important to keep an eye on the changes these developments bring.

"The tar sands release a whole spectrum of metals and other types of contaminants," he said. "There's been a tremendous amount of work on contaminants in whole lakes, how it goes through the food chain, how it affects different organisms like fish and invertebrates."

Smol said the knowledge provided by the ELA is fundamental to address these issues.

"When you think about the environment, you don't just think about the next year," he said. "You have to think about decades to come, you have to think of your children and grandchildren, because once it's gone, it's gone.

"Nature is very slow to pardon our environmental sins."