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Canada shutters research lakes facilities

Posted on behalf of Hannah Hoag

ELA nanosilver.jpg

An Experimental Lakes Area worker adding silver nanoparticles into water containers in summer 2012, as part of a project to study the particles’ biological effects.
HANNAH HOAG

The Canadian government has barred scientists from entering the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario starting on 1 April and has begun dismantling some of its buildings. As funding for the internationally admired freshwater research station dried up this week, scientists with on-going projects at the facility were left wondering about the future of their research.

“It’s up in the air as to what’s going to happen,” says Chris Metcalfe, an environmental toxicologist at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Metcalfe received a CAN$800,000 federal grant to study the ecological effects of nanosilver. He had been preparing to contaminate an entire lake with the nanosilver particles this summer. Metcalfe says although he’s looking at several options, he is facing the possibility of abandoning the study altogether.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (known by its old acronym DFO) has been looking for a new operator since the government announced the closure of the research station in May 2012. But after meetings with a handful of university representatives proved fruitless, the government began courting the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a United Nations think-tank headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to take over the facility.

IISD has kept its protracted negotiations with the government under tight wraps, but the institute’s new CEO has offered a sliver of hope that IISD might save the ELA from being mothballed. In an interview with Postmedia News earlier this week Scott Vaughan, the new head of the IISD, said the institute could maintain current projects at the ELA. Before starting his new job, Vaughan, who had been the federal environment watchdog, had told the CBC that he would take over ELA “absolutely, in a heartbeat.”

Scientists, citizen groups and opposition politicians have pressured the Canadian government to keep the ELA open. The research facility has been the site of major research on contaminants that wind up in rivers and lakes — including acid rain, mercury, phosphorus and hormone disruptors such as the synthetic oestrogen of birth control pills. But without a firm deal in place, the DFO is keeping scientists from using the site, its residences and laboratories.

Over the winter, Metcalfe’s team spent tens of thousands of dollars buying equipment and moving it to the remote site to prepare for the summer program. In mid-March, Metcalfe contacted DFO to find out whether the facility would be open after 31 March, and was told “no.”

Maggie Xenopoulos, an aquatic biologist at Trent University and collaborator on the nanosilver project, emailed an appeal to Dave Gillis, the DFO director in charge of ELA’s future, and asked access. She has not received a response and DFO did not return Nature’s request for comment. “Our experiment isn’t amenable to taking a year off. We have to do the science as correctly as possible, otherwise we’re wasting money,” says Xenopoulos.

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    Barrie Webster said:

    The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in NW Ontario (just east of Kenora, ON) is the unique whole lake environmental research facility (on the globe). It is not expensive to maintain; it was a challenge to establish in the first place more than 45 years ago, and will be virtually impossible to re-establish once it has been destroyed (not just closed as news reports would have us believe). Research results from ELA have been of very high quality and have been instrumental in establishing respected environmental policies internationally for more than 40 years. Destruction of this facility can only benefit the commercial interests that feel threatened by the research. A truly devastating travesty is taking place thanks to the current political judgment of the Conservative government of Canada, a government that continues to demonstrate its outright hostility to science, data collection, and independent research.

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