03/21/2013 06:08 EDT | Updated 05/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Experimental Lakes scientists kept in dark on facility's future

Scientists with ongoing projects at the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario had to contact the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to find out they would not be allowed to work at the facility this summer.

Principal researchers on a mercury contamination study in the area initiated and arranged a conference call with David Gillis, director general of the Ecosystem Science Directorate at DFO.

The scientists say they had only heard about the cancellation of the 2013 field season through rumours, gossip and the media but nothing officially from the DFO. They were confused about why the government would mothball the facility for the summer when DFO only gives up control on Sept. 1.

"I don't feel that the people who have dedicated themselves to working out there [in the Experimental Lakes Area] for years and years and who have huge investments in their research activities, I don't feel that they are being treated with the respect that they deserve," said Dr. Carol Kelly a scientist with the METAALICUS (Mercury Experiment to Assess Atmospheric Loadings in Canada and the U.S.) project.

METAALICUS is a joint project between Canadian and American government and university scientists that began in 2000. The scientists are studying the effects of mercury deposited from air pollution. Results from the study led the U.S. government to change mercury emissions regulations for coal-fired power plants.

Because METAALICUS has been at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) for so long, scientists store a good deal of equipment at the facility. Dr. Cindy Gilmour of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland has many large instruments there and asked Gillis what would happen to them. Gillis asked for a list of inventory.

Gilmour also asked about the future of the ELA a number of times during the conference call. Gillis told her the situation was "complex."

"I'm worried that by not answering our questions about what will happen to the station and by asking for inventory that these are signs that DFO is perhaps preparing for the eventuality of demolishing the station," Gilmour told CBC News.

Beyond her worry, Gilmour was particularly frustrated by DFO's lack of transparency about the future of the ELA.

"If they're negotiating in good faith to turn the station over to another operator, why not be transparent about what they are going to do there this summer," she asked.

A spokesman for DFO said the department has been clear the federal government will no longer operate the ELA facility as of March 31.

"The department continues to prepare the facility for a third-party operator or the decommissioning of the site pending negotiations with third parties and the Province of Ontario," Frank Stanek told CBC News in an email Thursday. "The department continues to work with scientists to ensure they have the opportunity to retrieve any items."

Stanek also pointed to other recent research investments by the department, adding, "science continues to be the backbone of Fisheries and Oceans Canada."

But Kelly believes the decision to shutter ELA is ideologically motivated. She said the unique whole-ecosystem experiments at the facility give very precise answers to vexing and complicated environmental questions.

Kelly said the Conservative government prefers vague answers that allow them to question scientific findings. That, she said, makes it easier to advance their resource development agenda.

"If you're not interested in making any regulations, then ELA would not be useful to you," Kelly said.