Canada's crown jewel of environmental research may yet survive the Harper government. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced yesterday the province would work with Winnipeg's International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) to keep the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area open.
The 45 year old freshwater research facility in northern Ontario considered unique in the world was closed March 31st over protests from the scientific community and the public.
“Premier Wynne's announcement is most welcome but this is far, far from over,” said Diane Orihel, PhD student at University of Alberta and the founder of the Coalition to Save ELA.
“It's wonderful that IISD will lead but they don't have the $2 million to keep the ELA open. There will need to be a huge fundraising effort involving provincial governments, university and industry,” Orihel told DeSmog.
The investment will be more than worth it given the history.
Research done at the ELA warned the world about the dangers of acid rain as well as mercury and phosphorus pollution. Regulations that protect the health of the environment in Canada many countries are based on the work done at the ELA.
The United States just recently tightened regulations on mercury emissions coming from coal plants because of research at the ELA proved that if those emissions are reduced, mercury levels that make fish like trout risky to eat decline.
“We proved that if emissions are reduced mercury levels in fish decline fairly quickly,” said Orihel who has spent 10 years at the ELA.
“That research couldn't have been done anywhere else.”
The US paid for the mercury research and although Environment Canada has access to the data and long promised tighter regulations, it still has not acted Orihel said.
The ELA is an outdoor lab with 58 lakes where researchers can experiment on an entire lake while comparing results to nearby lakes. This type of large-scale and decades long experimentation cannot be done anywhere else she said.
It costs $2 million a year to keep the ELA running. That's much less than 1% of the Department of Fisheries budget says Carol Kelly, a retired University of Manitoba ecologist who has done research there for more than 30 years.
An important experiment to determine the environmental impacts of nanosilver was fully funded and ready to go this year at the ELA. “We don't know what these tiny nanoparticles will do in environment and they're already in a lot of products,” Kelly said in an interview.
Hundreds of products including food containers, socks, shoe inserts, sports clothing and towels are sold as ‘anti-bacterial’ or ‘odour controlling' now contain nanosilver particles that are smaller than a virus. Lab research has shown they can mutate fish embryos.
“We know nanosilver particles are getting into rivers and lakes but we don't know what they are doing to fish or other species,” she said.
The ELA is the best place in the world to do this research. It makes no sense to close and government officials have never offered a credible reason for doing it said Kelly.
The only reason for the closure is to keep Canadians from knowing about the risks of new products like nano-silver or emissions of chemicals from the tar sands said Orihel.
“If public doesn't know then they won't fight for regulations to protect them.”
A year ago most Canadians had never heard of the ELA. Now surveys show that 75% know about it and most, no matter what party they voted for, want the ELA to stay open she said.
“I hope the Harper government will co-operate and make this a quick and relatively painless transition.”
Image Credit: DFO.