Feds worried Ottawa transit line will put flagship observatory on the fritz

Investigative Journalism

Note: My investigative reporting took serious critical thinking and research skills. Learn more about my process.

Published with The Canadian Press, Oct. 14, 2013.

The federal government is worried a light rail transit line being built in Ottawa will cripple a premier scientific observatory and jeopardize a national monitoring network used to track the weather in space, documents show.

Natural Resources Canada’s geomagnetic research laboratory is planted in a bog in the city’s east end and keeps tabs on how energy particles thrown off by the sun affect Earth’s magnetic field and technologies such as satellites and GPS navigation systems.

But the department is concerned that some more terrestrial interference emitted from the city’s $2.1-billion electric transit line funded in part by the federal government may put the facility on the fritz, an internal memo states.

“From observations of magnetic noise at similar facilities internationally, and modelling by NRCan and other groups, suggest that such LRT systems are very powerful sources of low-frequency magnetic noise, and will generate sporadic noise levels sufficient to exceed international standards,” says the document obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information.

“Predicted noise will significantly impact observatory operations at Anderson Road and render the calibration facility inoperable at its present location.”

The lab serves as the headquarters of the federal government’s geomagnetic monitoring service and is relied upon to set calibration standards for its network of 12 other magnetic observatories dotting the country. The facility also aids efforts to monitor earthquakes, among other duties.

Observatory sites are specially chosen to meet tough international standards for magnetic interference, the levels of which must remain stable over the long term so Earth’s magnetic fields can by measured accurately, the memo notes.

As such, the 45-year-old Ottawa lab sits in a carved-out section of the 3,500-hectare Mer Bleue peat-moss bog.

But that may be too close to the easternmost station on the 13-stop Confederation Line, which will be placed above ground nearly seven kilometres away.

The August 2012 memo notes that on the federal government’s urging the transit line’s design has been tweaked to hopefully reduce the magnetic-noise impact, but cautions the full extent of just what the interference will do to the facility won’t be known until the LRT — built with $600 million in federal funding — has its maiden test voyage in 2017.

An NRCan spokeswoman said in an email the department is mulling over moving the calibration station.

“There are several diverse NRCan programs which operate from and rely on the Anderson road facility. There are ongoing discussions about the possible relocation of the magnetic calibration facility but, at this stage, the costs are not yet defined,” Jacinthe Perras said.

She added that the department will “continue to review” its options for the electromagnetic monitoring network if the “national reference” Ottawa observatory is knocked out.

The City of Ottawa insists the 12.5-kilometre LRT line won’t take a toll on the flagship research post.

“The city has a close, productive working relationship with NRCan and does not believe the Confederation Line will impact their facility on Anderson Road,” director of rail implementation Gary Craig said in an email.

“Specifically, the city has been in regular communication with NRCan for over a year and a half to address their concerns” through the technical and environmental review process, he said.

But Perras reiterated that answers won’t arrive until the transit line is finally powered up.

“NRCan maintains that the impact on the magnetic measurements at the Anderson road facility will only be known for certain once the (light rail) testing and regular operations begin,” she said.

Photo credit: shankar s./Flick CC