OTTAWA - The Harper government is refusing to permit fully funded freshwater research to take place this summer at the remote Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario.

A group of researchers from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., was told this week they are barred from the site, despite starting their work last summer and spending thousands of dollars on an approved trip to one of the ELA lakes as recently as last month.

Ottawa is currently negotiating with the Ontario government and others to take over the Experimental Lakes Area, which has been conducting world-class science since 1968 into everything from acid rain and climate change to mercury exposure.

The federal government says the decision to close the facility, part of last year's budget cuts, will save it about $2 million a year — although sources say the actual operating cost of the facility is about $600,000 annually, of which a third comes back in user fees.

And although the federal agreement doesn't expire until September and negotiations for the transfer are continuing, a spokeswoman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans says no researchers are allowed on the 60 lakes this summer because the facility is no longer a federal operation.

"The government has been very clear that the Experimental Lakes Area will not be operated as a federal facility as of March 31," said Erin Filliter, a spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield.

For the Trent University group, which was awarded an $800,000 federal research grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada in 2011, the ban is devastating.

The university is examining environmental effects of silver nano particles, an increasingly common antibacterial additive to clothing.

"This decision is totally unnecessary," said biologist Maggie Xenopoulos. "We have our own research funding."

She said the project, which began with baseline testing on a lake in the ELA last summer and more last month, understood the site's ownership is in flux.

But, said Xenopoulos, the researchers "thought this was a great opportunity for the government to come back and say, 'yeah, we do care about the environment, of course you can go out there — so long as we don't have to pay for you to be out there.'"

"I don't know what they're thinking."

A spokeswoman for Gary Goodyear, the Conservative minister of state for science, suggested the Trent group could continue its experiment at another research facility — although a year's work would be lost.

And NSERC officials said research grants can be renegotiated.

"We've made unprecedented investments in science and research," said Goodyear's spokeswoman Michele-Jamali Paquette. "This government's dedication to science is well known and documented."

An increasing chorus of leading scientific researchers, however, say the Conservative government is divesting the federal government of scientific expertise and research ability.

The Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned facility that costs Ottawa a relative pittance, has become a lightning rod for those critics.

Britt Hall, a University of Regina biogeochemist who is a director of a group dedicated to saving the ELA, saveela.org, said she worries Ottawa doesn't actually want the facility to survive.

"If the government was really, really supportive and really committed to making a deal ... why would they close the site for a measly five months when there are people who still want to do research, still want to maintain the integrity of the long-term data that has been going on for 44 years?" Hall said in an interview.

Doug Haffner, a senior Canada Research Chair specializing in Great Lakes environmental health at the University of Windsor, said the value of the ELA increases with every year of additional data.

"It's essential in this world right now that we have a long-term experimental data set," he said. "This is our biggest need under climate-change type scenarios."

"Over time that site is becoming more and more valuable. That seems to be lost in all these discussions."

Canada suffers for lack of a national freshwater policy, said Haffner — a shortfall he blames on multiple governments.

Haffner says such a policy "would actually stop governments from playing the games we're now seeing," which he argues will be costly for the country.

"We have a long history, and a lot of international reputation in water research and water management stems from that (ELA) site," said Haffner.

"If we're seen giving up almost peanuts — in dollars and cents — for that ELA, what you're giving up in reputation on negotiating international water policies, you're giving up a lot."

Jolanta Kowalski, a spokeswoman for the provincial Natural Resources ministry, said the Ontario government is in negotiations with the Harper government.

"There have been discussions between DFO and us around a new operator and also around their responsibilities for cleaning the site up and rehabing it," said Kowalski.

"But there hasn't been a proposal put forward to us to operate it, instead of the feds. Right now, that's still a work in progress."

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