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Making Waves

Making Waves's picture
Analysis of Canadian water politics by the Council of Canadians' national water campaigner.

Harper seals our fate on water and energy sustainability

| March 5, 2013

Today is Save the ELA Day. To mark this day, a dinner event is being held in Kenora tonight where Elder Nancy Morrison, Tania Cameron, Peter Kirby and MP Bruce Hyer are slated to speak on the closure of Experimental Lakes Area.

Last spring, the federal government announced they would no longer contribute the $2 million needed to keep the 40 year old facility running. There has been a huge public outcry over this announcement. The Coalition to Save the ELA http://saveela.org/ gathered over 23,000 signatures from people calling on the federal government to continue funding this critical research centre. Leading scientists and MPs have spoken out about the cuts; even a majority of Conservative voters oppose the cuts.

Recent studies from the ELA include mercury and greenhouse gases, hormonal mimics, habitat disruption, and climate change effects. The ELA has been critical for developing mitigation strategies for reducing contamination of fishes with mercury and other toxins. Termination of this federal research program will seriously undermine the federal government’s ability to develop such mitigation strategies in the future.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced last week that it wants to terminate its Memorandum of Understanding with the Ontario government that requires remediate and rehabilitation of the site. The Dryden Observer noted that “DFO has published no cost estimates for neutralizing the effects of long-term contaminant studies at ELA but Thunder Bay-Superior North Independent MP Bruce Hyer stated on the floor of the House of Commons on Feb. 13 that ELA staff estimates the cost at $50 million.” Given that the ELA’s annual budget is $2 million, the federal government could continue to run the facility for another 25 years if they’re will to put in the $50 million to remediate the area.

The federal government states that Fisheries and Oceans Canada no longer need to do this type of research. And yet when we look at the research being conducted at the ELA, the scientific data is sorely needed for a sustainable energy strategy.

One ELA study assesses the effects of hydroelectric development. Hydroelectric dams are often touted as a ‘clean’ energy solution. However, the ELA study raises questions about whether hydroelectric dams have similar impacts as burning fossil fuels.

“There’s a new idea around that reservoirs may be significant sources of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. And we want to test that idea, ”says Drew Bodaly, Research Scientist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in this Experimental Lakes video.

As noted in the video, Bodaly and his colleagues built dikes at the ELA in marshy areas to simulate a hydro reservoir and the results were startling: trees died; thick peat bogs began to decay under a metre and a half of water producing startling results; methyl mercury concentrations that were 20 times what they were before the reservoir; significant movement of greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide and methane; elevated levels of mercury in the fish were found, which threatens humans.

The video highlights that GHGs were still being released 6 years after the flooding and could continue for the next century. It also notes that in extreme cases, the once clean energy solution can produce a third as much GHG as a coal fired generator -- the dirtiest method of generating power.

The next phase of the experiment compares mercury and GHG levels in both wetland areas and dry forests. This research influenced several hydroelectric companies plans which redesigned plans to avoid flooding marshy areas. While hydroelectric dams have negative impacts on watersheds, land use and community rights, this scientific evidence is essential for energy development.

David Schindler, world-renowned biological scientist and professor at the University of Alberta, raised concerns about the motive behind the cuts to the ELA. The Globe and Mail reported,  “Leading environmental scientists say Ottawa is cutting funding to a research station that studied the ecology of freshwater lakes for more than 50 years because it is producing data the Conservatives do not want to hear as they promote development of the Alberta oil sands.”

“My guess is our current managers don’t like to see this kind of [research] because the oil sands have an exponentially increasing output of mercury,” Dr. Schindler said.

He adds, “Recent studies conducted at the station have found that when the mercury input to a lake is cut off, the lake begins to recover... That contradicts the oil industry’s position, which says that once a lake is polluted with mercury, it is beyond repair and adding more won’t make any difference.

The Conservative government’s move to cut funds to the ELA is sealing the fate of indigenous communities and communities across Canada to develop and implement sustainable water and energy policies based in scientific evidence. 

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