OTTAWA - Forty-four years of continuous freshwater research at the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario will not be interrupted this summer after all.
The federal government has agreed to permit continuing data collection this season as it wraps up negotiations with a Winnipeg-based, non-governmental research institute to take over management of the remote, 58-lake facility.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty killed the $2-million annual stipend for the ELA in last year's Conservative budget, and even fully funded researchers were being told as recently as last month that no work would be allowed to take place there this year.
The facility — not well known outside scientific circles — had become a political embarrassment for the government, a lightning rod for critics who say the spendthrift Conservatives are hacking away at environmental science while spending huge amounts on advertising and communications.
Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield announced Thursday he's signed a memorandum of understanding with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, "an internationally renowned public policy research institute."
"This agreement is an important step for the future of operations of ELA and will allow us to support projects during the upcoming summer season," Ashfield told the House of Commons.
The MOU does not yet transfer ownership or management, but signals that both sides believe a deal is reachable, Scott Vaughan, president of the IISD, said in an interview.
"The signal that the minister sent today is that the research season of 2013 will be open, and that is great news," said Vaughan.
"Both sides were absolutely, critically mindful of the urgency that the season starts when the ice melts there. That's right now."
Once the deal is complete, the IISD will be the third-party operator of the site but is going to need partners.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has already said the province will help with operating costs, the province of Manitoba is also part of negotiations and others are being sought.
"The more the merrier," said Vaughan. "We're a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization. We're taking this on with quite a bit of risk."
Founded in 1968 under the independent and long-defunct Fisheries Research Board of Canada, work at the ELA is credited with critical work on mercury pollution, acid rain, climate change, phosphate pollutants, algae blooms and other environmental issues.
New research on silver nanoparticles, now commonly used in clothing to stop bacteria, was interrupted this spring by the 2012 federal funding cut.
The Conservatives aren't the first government to threaten it with the axe, said scientist David Schindler, one of the ELA founders.
The University of Alberta ecologist said putting the facility under the care of the IISD is a good fit.
"It wouldn't take much to be a better home than DFO, which I've always felt was a wicked stepmother to a Cinderella project."
He said this is the fourth time a government has tried to close the project.
"It will, I think, be good for the ELA to be free of that curse," said Schindler.
Still, NDP environment critic Meagan Leslie said it is not a day for the Conservative government to celebrate.
"There was no planning here. It was a budget line that looked simple and easy to cut, so they did with no plan about what next," said Leslie.
"I think they got caught totally off guard by the public reaction."
As part of the MOU, Fisheries and Oceans has guaranteed that all past liabilities will be resolved before handing over the site.
A spokeswoman for the minister said Ottawa will operate the ELA this summer and spend between $600,000 and $1.2 million on remediation.
Vaughan noted that while some reports have claimed huge amounts of pollutants have been dumped in the lakes, that's not the case. Water quality in all but one of the lakes is very good.
"You want to keep it in a real-world scenario," he said of the experiments.
As for cleaning up the rest of the site, including removal of above-ground storage tanks and garbage, he noted the government's own calculations don't put the figure above $2.5 million.
"That's part of the negotiation," said Vaughan.