This story was originally posted on the Nature News Blog. 

The government of Ontario, Canada, has stepped in to keep open the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). The freshwater research facility, located in northern Ontario, was closed in March by the government of Canada, despite protests from scientists.

Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne announced today that the government of Ontario will provide support to keep the ELA running this year and in the future, as it works to transfer the facility to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a United Nations think tank based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“We have had many conversations with members of the public and our scientific and academic communities who want to see the Experimental Lakes Area stay open,” Wynne said in a statement. But the statement did not elaborate on how much money the government has designated for operations, whether the facility will be fully operational this summer or the fate of the long-term climate data set the facility has kept up for 45 years. Meanwhile, the federal government released its own statement today noting that it “has been leading negotiations with third parties”.

“We remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached and we welcome Ontario’s willingness to play an active role,” reads the statement from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Many university scientists say that they are still not sure whether they will be able to continue their experimental work this summer. Several are sceptical that negotiations will be wrapped up in time for experiments to proceed as planned. “It’s somewhat exciting news, but quite frankly I don’t know what it means for us yet,” says Maggie Xenopoulos, an aquatic biologist at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Xenopoulos and her colleagues had planned to contaminate one of ELA’s lakes with nanosilver this summer and measure its ecological impact.

A statement from the IISD’s leader offered few specifics about its potential deal with the government of Ontario. “If the ELA does come to IISD, we would work with other stakeholders to ensure it remains an independent, world-class research facility that continues to produce leading-edge freshwater ecosystems science in the public domain and in the public interest,” said Scott Vaughan, the institute’s president and chief executive.

Vincent St. Louis, a biogeochemist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says that the plan “is a good first start”. The plan to close the lake area “has always been baffling from a scientific perspective, given how much it provides at such a low cost,” says St. Louis, who has studied acid rain, reservoir creation and mercury emissions at the ELA — and would like to see scientists use the facility to study the impact of chemicals found in oil sands tailing ponds, such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons, on aquatic biota.

The federal government announced last May that it would stop funding the facility, which cost about Can$2 million (US$2 million) to operate, and that it would begin a search for a new operator. Federal funding dried up on 31 March, and university scientists who had planned experiments for the summer field season were told that they were not allowed on the site.

Written by Hannah

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