Scientists slam secret talks to sell lake research hub
Activists gather on the Gimli boardwalk to protest the cuts to the Experimental Lakes Area by the federal government in Gimli, Man., Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012. (John Woods / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Sunday, November 18, 2012 7:15AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, November 20, 2012 7:19AM EST
A group of scientists working to save the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area from the federal chopping block is criticizing the government for conducting secret negotiations to sell the facility.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans tells CTVNews.ca that it is discussing a sale of the ELA -- 58 research lakes in Northern Ontario -- but won’t say with whom it is talking. There are reports the potential buyer is the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a United Nations-linked policy research non-profit headquartered in Winnipeg, but that group won’t say whether they’re involved in the talks either.
The Coalition to Save the ELA says “secretive and undemocratic” negotiations for Canada’s crown jewel of freshwater science simply aren’t acceptable, and that any talks to sell the publicly-funded research station should be open to public scrutiny.
“Why aren’t these negotiations open?” asked coalition director Diane Orihel on Friday. “Why doesn’t the buyer want to be identified? Whatever they’re offering, why isn’t it on the table for scientists and the public to examine, so we can scrutinize it? It’s hard to have a position on a particular deal if you’re completely being left in the dark.”
Run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for about $2 million per year, the ELA has spawned ground-breaking research into acid rain and algae blooms, and is the only place of its scale in Canada where scientists can conduct full-lake research. Its closure was included in the government’s omnibus budget implementation bill passed in June, set for March unless a buyer is found to take over from DFO.
Scientists fear that the credibility of the work done at the facility could be at risk if it falls into the wrong hands. They’d like to see it stay under government control -- and say recent revelations that the government has spent $14 million this year on ads promoting its own performance show there could be money found to run ELA.
“It’s crazy they say they don’t have $2 million,” Orihel told CTVNews.ca. “All of us are just completely baffled and disappointed that these are the priorities of the government… When it comes down to it, the government should taking care of our fish and water.”
While insisting on the Conservatives’ commitment to the environment, Fisheries department spokesperson Erin Fillite refused to go into detail Friday about plans for the facility.
“The department continues to discuss the transfer of the facility, but because those discussions are ongoing and due to confidentiality, we cannot provide additional details,” she said in an email.
While managed by the federal government for its 44 years, the property the ELA sits on is owned by the Province of Ontario. An agreement between the two parties says the feds are required to remediate the land if they leave, but an Ontario Environment Ministry spokesperson didn’t want to speculate on how the agreement would be affected by a change in ownership.
“Ontario has not received any formal proposal regarding a different operator for the site, and would have to review it for it merits,” Jolanta Kowalski told CTVNews.ca.
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.
But while declining to comment on the discussions, IISD spokesperson Nona Pelletier said the organization has the research station’s best interests at heart.
“We are one of the interested stakeholders that want to see a positive outcome for the ELA,” she said Friday.