By Jon Thompson
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has notified the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) it wishes to end the Memorandum Of Agreement that governs the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA).
In Sept. 2012, the DFO submitted the request to end the 1993 agreement that manages the world-renowned, full-ecosystem research facility, slated for closure on March 31. When the agreement expires in Sept. 2013, the federal government will retain its responsibility to rehabilitate the 58-lake site, located 70 kilometres west of Dryden but any future management will pass to the MNR.
“The DFO has notified Ontario it wants to terminate the (memorandum) and the DFO will be required to remediate and rehabilitate the area,” reads a statement from the office of David Orazietti, newly appointed Ontario Minister of Natural Resources. “If a group or organization wishes to take over the land they would have to formally approach the Ministry of Natural Resources and we would consider such a proposal based on its merits. There would have to be a new (memorandum) if a proposal goes forward.”
DFO has published no cost estimates for neutralizing the effects of long-term contaminant studies at ELA but the activist organization, the Coalition to Save ELA estimates the cost at $10 million to $15 million and Thunder Bay-Superior North Independent MP Bruce Hyer stated on the floor of the House of Commons on Feb. 13 that he estimates the cost at $50 million.
As late as Feb. 27, however, letters addressed to those requesting updates on the ELA have explicitly stated the DFO continues to work toward a transfer.
“Please be assured that DFO is working diligently to find another operator for the facility so that this important work can continue by another party better suited for this type of research,” reads a letter signed by DFO Minister Keith Ashfield, addressed to the president of the Society of Canadian Limnologists, Jules Blais.
Ashfield and Kenora MP Greg Rickford both expressed no comment, but to say negotiations continue at the federal level with unspecified parties.
Kenora’s Peter Kirby has been one of the regional leaders of the Coalition to Save the ELA. He expressed disappointment over the pending end to the memorandum but was encouraged that Ashfield continues to communicate that efforts toward a transfer remain under negotiation.
“Ashfield’s response is political. The termination of the memorandum is bureaucratic. There’s a bureaucracy within the DFO that is given marching orders and they have to plan. That’s the way I interpret that,” he said. “I will tell you I’m very disappointed the Liberal government in Ontario has not stood up for the ELA because it’s a perfect opportunity for them to prove their green credentials and to preserve what I think would be a real piece of political capital for them – for the Ontario government to say, ‘we’ve saved the ELA’ would be a fantastic piece of news for all the environmentalists across Ontario, across Canada, across the world.”
Although Kirby praised Kenora-Rainy River MPP Sarah Campbell’s stance, he called on NDP leader Andrea Horwath to stand up for the cause.
“We need someone to be our champion and so far, we don’t have that person. If Ontario turned up the heat, it would force the federal government not into an untenable position but into a more uncomfortable position.”
Campbell has spoken on ELA in the legislature and worked with the Ministry of the Environment, who unsuccessfully called on the federal government to diversify ELA’s management to fall under a group of five ministries last June, she said her role is “limited at this point.”
What I can do is I can sit down with the Minister of Natural Resources and talk to him about how important the facility is but it’s definitely challenging,” she said, arguing the province can’t afford to saddle the responsibility of remediation. “I’d like to see something worked out with the federal government but if they’re not in a position where they’re willing to negotiate, that puts us in a tough spot.”