BREAKING: CU Dismisses Prominent Atmospheric Researcher With Activist Ties Over Blurring Of Public, Private Research
An associate researcher at CU Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research with ties to activist groups no longer works for the university after an internal investigation revealed that a separation between publicly funded research and private commercial work done by Dr. Detlev Helmig was not being properly maintained, according to university officials.
Helmig, whose research and air quality monitoring efforts have drawn the attention of activists and legislators alike, no longer appears on INSTAAR website pages, with his personal page and research information scrubbed this week.
In a statement to Western Wire, CU Interim Director of Communications and Chief Spokesperson Melanie Marquez Parra explained the separation that occurred between the university and Helmig once it was determined that the researcher failed to maintain the required degree of daylight between publicly funded research efforts and his own for-profit business.
“Dr. Helmig no longer works for CU Boulder. Dr. Helmig created a private enterprise, Boulder A.I.R., an LLC which performs work substantially similar to that performed by Dr. Helmig for the university,” Parra wrote. “CU Boulder and Dr. Helmig worked to clearly separate the work performed and resources used by this commercial enterprise from the work and resources of the university.”
In order to avoid any interpretation of misuse of university resources, Parra continued, Helmig’s departure was necessary.
“This is exceedingly important for the university as the university and its employees are stewards of research dollars from multiple sources. The university determined, after careful review and consideration, that the separation of work and resources was not being maintained and a separation of the university from Dr. Helmig and his commercial enterprise was required,” she wrote.
Among Helmig’s research was continuous, “near-real time” atmospheric monitoring at Boulder Reservoir, conducted by INSTAAR and sponsored by Boulder County Public Health, in partnership with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
Legislators in Colorado drew heavily on Helmig’s Boulder Reservoir research as they prepared their landmark SB 181 oil and gas regulatory bill in 2019.
Rumors of Helmig’s departure spread Thursday, with activist groups like WildEarth Guardians taking to Twitter, alleging Helmig was fired because of his research.
“BREAKING Atmospheric scientist who exposed oil and gas industry’s toxic air pollution
in #Colorado no longer listed as working for U. of Colorado. Detlev Helmig’s research has been critical resource for health officials. Did industry get him fired??” the group wrote.
Parra pushed back on the charge that outside forces played a role in Helmig’s dismissal.
“CU Boulder is committed to climate research. As world leaders in this type of research, we remain dedicated to and fully supportive of the type of research that Dr. Helmig conducts. The decision to part ways was not driven by anyone or any entity placing pressure on the university,” she added.
Detlev Helmig Interview from The Story Group on Vimeo.
Helmig’s research again drew considerable attention from Colorado legislators in recent months, with a study released in February alleging emissions from oil and gas production being undercounted once again leading to legislation from Democratic Party leadership.
State Sen. Majority Leader Steve Fenberg praised Helmig’s findings.
“BREAKING: Here’s why I’m introducing a bill next week to dramatically increase air monitoring and health studies related to fossil fuel emissions. It will be a tough legislative fight, but the health of our communities is worth it,” Fenberg tweeted on February 28.
Fenberg’s bill, introduced on March 12, has seen no action due to the ongoing suspension of the legislative session from to COVID-19 health concerns. Helmig’s contributions formed the basis for the bill seeking additional research funding and expanded air quality monitoring.
Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones, whose work includes filing a climate lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor, added her recognition for Helmig’s work, echoing Fenberg.
“Thank you @SteveFenberg, Dr. Detlev Helmig and @cdhpeapcd for your efforts to support good science that can help us clean up CO’s smoggy air! #weallneedcleanair,” she tweeted.
That research was partially funded by Earthworks, as the Denver Post noted in an update to their February story. Helmig appeared with Earthworks at a League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans meeting last October to discuss air quality testing.
“We will take a deep dive into what technology is currently being used, what actionable steps can we take locally in policy making, and how can we ensure effective monitoring of particles that affect our air quality and our health. Dr. Detlev Helmig from INSTAAR and Nathalie Eddy from Earthworks will be presenting, and we will allow ample time for questions and answers from the attendees,” the event page said. The presentation was co-hosted by North Range Concerned Citizens.
The group described itself as “a coalition of Commerce City neighborhoods that firmly believes industrial activity is incompatible with residential areas anywhere.” Commerce City is a suburb of Denver, Colo. situated near oil and gas production.
Also of concern is the future legacy of Helmig’s data and research at Boulder Reservoir, which is no longer available on the INSTAAR site.
The online data visualization and publicly funded research, according to Parra, will be transferred to Helmig’s private company, Boulder Atmosphere Innovation Research.
“INSTAAR is in the process of working with Dr. Helmig to transfer all data files to Boulder A.I.R.,” Parra noted.
Helmig’s company “provides atmospheric analysis and research support” in atmospheric analyses of trace gases and pollutants; monitoring and characterization of oil and natural gas emissions; and evaluation of atmospheric and air quality data sets, among other services.