Experimenting with lakes: how and for whom?

A few months ago, the Canadian government pulled the plug on its Experimental Lakes Area. The ELA had been one of the premier sites in the world where ecosystem level experiments had been conducted on nutrient loading, acid rain and a host of other issues directly relevant to providing a sound empirical basis for social policy.

The decision to cut funding to the ELA program was roundly criticized, and rightfully so, because the relatively small budget required to maintain the site (I think it was around $2 million annually) was more than compensated for by the benefits of effective policy development that the ELA supported.

In Canada, several outlets have reported on the ‘anti-science’ sentiment of the current government. But I’m not getting on that bandwagon. Rather, I think it is important to look at what is replacing the type of science being done and for whom the social activity of science is accomplished since, as is often repeated in the Canadian media, the current approach to environmental policy is touted as ‘science-based’.

For instance, earlier this week the Globe and Mail had a few articles (i.e. here and here) on a new set of hopes for reclaiming the toxic tailings left over after bitumen is separated from sand in Alberta’s Tar-cum-Oil Sands. The idea is to let nature do the work of cleaning up the mess through a series of lakes, some 30 in all, that work as end pits for mining operations.

Here are some illustrations of what is going to happen and where.

Now, the interesting question to me is: what kind of science is this? Clearly, at a broad level, this is a type of experiment. And that at an extremely sizable scale encompassing 30 odd lake ecosystems. But it is not the sort of thing we would call science when we stack it up against the sorts of controlled experiments that characterized the ELA. Well, why not? (And, this leaves aside the question of this particular site for experimentation that is already overburdened by substantial effects of development; much of which is the subject of controversy given Alberta’s Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program – RAMP – which David Schindler’s work, along with others, has eviscerated. Side note: Alberta has promised a “World-class monitoring system” which has yet to be implemented).

I think what is at issue here is that ‘science-based’ ways of, in this case, reducing harmful effluents are going to come at the expense of the many First Nations and other residents + species in the areas where Imperial Oil will start these massive experiments. So while I am not against experimenting with alternate ways of dealing with tailings in principle (although starting out at this scale is a clear power grab for the low-hanging fruit of so-called reclamation), what is disturbing about them is the shift they represent – where science begins to underpin policy in a way that is not assessing effects of proposed activities. Rather, this sort of science sets its targets on supporting activities that are themselves contested for what their effects may be. That sort of science is common-place for private firms, but it is a substantial departure away from the publicly oriented values that underpinned the great work previously done at the ELA.

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