Experimental Lakes closure risks federally funded research

A scientist with an $800,000 federal grant to study the environmental effect of an antibacterial agent says he won't be able to conduct his research due to the shuttering of the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario.

Trent University water scientist worries delay or cancellation will leave questions about nano-materials

Scientists say their research will be hampered after the federal government announced it is shutting down a series of lakes in northern Ontario used as giant laboratories 2:39

A scientist with an $800,000 federal grant will not be able to conduct his research due to the shuttering of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in northern Ontario.

Dr. Chris Metcalfe, who was set to contaminate a lake with nanosilver and document its effects on the lake's ecosystem, will have to put his experiment on hold. The grant for Metcalfe, of Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., came from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a branch of the federal Department of Industry.

"We're currently investing billions if not trillions of dollars in the development of various nano-materials. Why not take a look also at what the potential impacts might be on the environment?" Metcalfe asked.

Trent University students conduct controlled experiments with nanosilver at the Experimental Lakes Area last summer. (Lindsay Furtado photo)

He has already conducted some laboratory experiments and controlled studies in lake water. Nanosilver, an antibacterial technology made up of microscopic silver particles, is added to fabrics used in clothing to kill odours caused by sweating.

This summer's experiment was meant to use a whole lake, and the ELA is the only facility in the world where it is possible to do that. ELA experiments have been instrumental in the study of acid rain and the effects of laundry detergents on fresh water.

"I think what will happen is that there will still be questions about whether nano-materials —and specifically nanosilver —are potentially harmful to the environment or not," Metcalfe said, adding that will put Canadian regulatory agencies at a disadvantage when making rules for the use and development of nano-materials.

Supporters' optimism fading

"The whole issue defies logic," said Britt Hall, director of the Save the ELA Coalition and a biogeochemistry professor at the University of Regina. Her main frustration is dealing with what she calls "the ideology" behind the decision.

The closure of the Experimental Lakes Area freshwater research facility means federally funded research into the environment impact of nanosilver won't go ahead. (Lindsay Furtado photo)

"It appears as if the government is really just wanting to close the Experimental Lakes Area regardless of the type of impacts that are going to happen either financially or scientifically," she said.

"It does seem almost nasty that they decided to do this now."

Optimism in her group is fading, she added, pointing to the recent confusing story of five cabins at ELA. Initially, it was reported they were being taken down. Now, it seems they are just being renovated.

The government defended its decision to mothball the ELA, despite putting some of its own grant money at risk.

"Our government has put $8 billion … into science and technology here in Canada since 2006 — since the Conservative government took power," Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear told CBC News. He said the money went to new laboratory infrastructure, including state-of-the-art equipment that can be used by all scientists, as well as fellowships and scholarships.

Asked why the government is not able to leave facility open while it searches for another operator, Goodyear replied, "Well, then we'd be having this interview next year, as well. We need to act on these things rapidly."