EXPERIMENTAL LAKES AREA, ONTARIO
To reach Lake 658, you leave the Trans-Canada Highway in the moose-ridden backwoods of western Ontario, creep down a teeth-jarring gravel road, follow a trail to a different lake, hop onto a motorboat and then take a short hike to 658's granite shoreline. The water is crystal-clear, and yet a sign warns: "Attention -- Fishing is Prohibited in the Lake." This area is far from any source of industrial pollution, but angling would disrupt an unusual long-running study of pollution.
For years, scientists deliberately contaminated Lake 658 with toxic mercury to track its travels through the ecosystem. Lake 658 is part of the Experimental Lakes Area, or ELA, an open-air laboratory that includes 57 other small lakes. Started in 1968, and run by a Canadian federal agency, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the ELA is also used by U.S. scientists. And ELA research has helped shape U.S. federal environmental laws as well as Western state and county regulations.
The experiments are bold and unusual, because they have to be: You can't stuff an entire lake into a test tube. From 1969 to 1976, researchers added combinations of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients to seven lakes, and verified that phosphorus causes algae blooms and biodiversity loss. That knowledge persuaded policy-makers to phase out phosphates in laundry detergents, and helped spur legislatures in states such as Montana, Utah, Washington and Oregon to limit phosphates in dishwasher detergents. It also aided grassroots campaigns discouraging the use of phosphorus lawn fertilizers around Montana's Flathead Lake and California's Lake Tahoe.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, ELA researchers conducted "the first whole-ecosystem" study of acid rain by adding sulfur to lakes. Their discovery that even small shifts in acidification kill fish led Congress to pass the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, which established a regulatory system for reducing sulfur emissions from coal-fired power plants. The ELA has also been used to study hormone-disruptors, like the synthetic estrogen in birth-control pills, which ends up in rivers and lakes.
When U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researchers grew concerned about mercury emissions from coal plants, the ELA was the only place they could add a potent neurotoxin to an entire lake. The Mercury Experiment To Assess Atmospheric Loading in Canada and the United States, or METAALICUS study, began in 1999. As it proceeded, a Canadian pilot sprayed a mist of one mercury isotope over the treetops. U.S. Geological Survey scientists in protective suits sprayed another mercury isotope over a mossy wetland, and researchers in a boat added a teaspoon of yet another directly to the lake. They're still tracing how each isotope cycles through the ecosystem. Within two months, for instance, mercury added to the lake's surface was measurable in fish. The findings unequivocally linked atmospheric depositions of mercury to the appearance of the toxin in fish, and helped inspire health advisories and the EPA's 2011 toughening of mercury standards.
But Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative Party leader and supporter of mining and other industries, is undermining every environmental regulation he can get his hands on. Harper's Department of Fisheries said last May that the entire Canadian federal funding for the ELA would be cut -- roughly $2 million, just a tiny fraction of the $275 billion total federal budget. Researchers who use the ELA often have separate funding from grants and other agency budgets, but the federal funding pays for staff salaries and equipment that keep the $13 million infrastructure going.
Harper administration officials have issued mixed messages, saying that the ELA will be shut down by March 2013, but that some of its research might shift to other locations. There's also a chance that an as-yet-unidentified "private operator" might take it over. The short timeframe and the liability involved in assuming responsibility for the pollution have convinced many researchers that the cut is a death sentence for the ELA's ongoing studies and its long-term ecological record. Hundreds of scientists in white lab coats protested in front of Canada's Parliament in July. Mimicking a funeral procession, they carried signs that said "The Death of Evidence."
"Those whole ecosystem demonstrations are a really powerful way to test something that industry often questions," says Cynthia Gilmour, a mercury researcher at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. "It's hard to argue against clear evidence like that."
"We have a government that's afraid that too much research might find something that would interfere with their develop-as-rapidly-as-possible plan," says David Schindler, who won the inaugural Stockholm Water Prize (the Nobel of freshwater science) for his ELA research. "It's a general disregard for environmental science." Peter Andrey Smith
Research support provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.