A world-renowned freshwater research facility that was shuttered by the federal government in April is reopening for experimentation this summer and there are strong indications a deal can be reached to keep it operating in the long term.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced on Thursday that it has reached an agreement with a Winnipeg-based research institute to allow work at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) to continue uninterrupted as the two sides negotiate the transfer of the facility in Northwestern Ontario.
The news was greeted with relief by scientists who feared their multiyear studies would be stopped before completion. And they took the announcement as proof the federal Conservative government is making serious headway in its efforts to turn the research station over to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
The agreement shows that the DFO and the IISD "are committed to this effort," said Diane Orihel, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta who has been fighting for a year to save the facility. "It's going to happen. And they are committed to a full sampling program this year, which is fantastic, which is what we have been pushing for."
A year ago, the federal government announced it was closing the outdoor laboratory, which consists of 58 lakes and their drainage areas and has provided groundbreaking research into the effects of pollutants such as acid rain and phosphates. The DFO said the work conducted at the ELA no longer met its mandate.
Scientists who have done research at the ELA embarked on a public relations campaign, driven in large part by Ms. Orihel, to draw attention to the closing and the 40 years' worth of continuous data that would be lost.
Last June, the government said it would try to find a new operator for the station, which costs federal taxpayers about $2-million a year.
The IISD was the only group to step forward and has been negotiating with DFO officials behind closed doors for the past seven months.
In March, the federal government sent a crew into the ELA to begin tearing down older buildings.
Two weeks ago, the Ontario government, which owns the land, said it was willing to put up operating dollars to keep the station running.
But scientists who tried to get in were told to stay away.
Scott Vaughan, the CEO and president of the IISD, said the agreement allowing the work to resume is a "good start."
But much is still to be determined, Mr. Vaughan said. "We know there are a lot of moving parts of this," he said, "the back liabilities, the forward liabilities, the operational costs."
Liabilities have been a major sticking point. Scientists have said it could cost tens of millions of dollars to remove the buildings and return the lakes to pristine condition.
Mr. Vaughan said estimates he has been given suggest it would be much less, but the IISD does not have deep pockets and cannot afford to be surprised by a big bill for the site's eventual cleanup.
There is also the matter of who will pay the DFO scientists who work at the ELA. Mr. Vaughan said having them work at the IISD is under discussion.
Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said the government's goal all along has been to find a non-governmental operator.
"There has been a lot of good work taking place there over the years, and we recognized that, and there are continuing opportunities for more to be done," Mr. Ashfield said in a telephone interview. "But it is probably better suited to the university-academia world than it would be to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans."
In addition to negotiating the transfer of the ELA, the IISD must come to an agreement with the province of Ontario about taking over. But Ontario seems eager to make that happen.
Laurel Broten, the provincial Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, said she was glad an agreement had been reached.
"This one-of-a-kind facility has helped us inform our strategies from pollution reduction to climate change to protecting our lakes, rivers and drinking water," she said in an e-mail. "It's important that the data to support those strategies be continuous, and that's why today's announcement that long-term data sets can continue uninterrupted is such positive news."