In the News: Experimental Lakes Area Up for Sale?!

I’ve not written much here about the current slash-and-burn effort of the Harper government on federal environmental research (mostly through Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans), and at this point there’s been so many cuts and so many groups dismantled, laid off, or functionally crippled that I don’t even know where I’d begin. One of the initiatives cut is the Experimental Lakes Area, a group of 58 lakes in northern Ontario that have been set aside for whole-lake research on everything from acid rain to fresh-water contaminants to lake ecology. The ELA is unique in the world, has been running very successfully for 44 year (generating an impressive stack of research), and costs about $2 million a year to operate. It is expected to cost substantially more than that to close the project, but in the name of “cost cutting” (…right…) the Harper government has cut the funding and shut the program down.

But!

Apparently they’re looking to sell the ELA to an unspecified “interested party.” The negotiations are happening in secret (of course), so it’s totally unclear what terms the area is being sold under. The land it sits on is held by the Ontario government, not the federal one, and since the terms being negotiated are secret, I’m not sure what, if any, issues of jurisdiction would come up.

What’s really appalling is that this was a scientific jewel for the federal government. It’s known by scientists around the world (at least scientists who do research in fresh-water environments), it’s produced excellent and very important research, and it’s run on a comparative shoestring. There’s no reason to close it or sell it — other than ideological. This government has no use for good regulatory environmental research, and is hacking away at the research groups and stations that do that work. (See also: the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory [PEARL] near Eureka, in the very High Arctic.) To first cut the funding, and then turn around and sell the area is a kick in the teeth after a slap in the face to Canadian environmental science. Since the parameters are all secret, there’s no indication of what sort of science will be done by the buyers, but if it’s in private hands, there’s no reason to believe that the scientific program will stay at all on course. Will the results of the research be publicly available? Will there be any requirement that the work done must be documented in some way, for regulatory purposes? What sort of regulation will the lakes have, if they’re not being managed by a federal department? Those are important questions to answer, and I doubt we’ll get any satisfactory answer.

Furthermore, who is funding the organization that’s buying the area, and will their interests influence the research done and the results published? From the news article linked above:

Despite the lack of public information, the coalition of scientists working to save the facility insist the IISD is the only current contender in the talks.

They say they’re concerned that a policy group doesn’t have what it takes to run an active research station. They’re also worried that the IISD’s funders — which include energy companies such as Enbridge and Suncor — could taint the research coming out of the ELA.

If this is accurate, then a world-class, governmentally run research facility known for rigourous, independent research is going to become a greenwashing research site for oil companies. Just what Canadians need!

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