Colorado State And Local Health Officials Quiet On Firing Of CU Researcher
State and local officials who have worked closely with a University of Colorado, Boulder, researcher dismissed for blurring the lines between publicly funded research and his private, for-profit business refused to respond on the impact of his firing from the university and the future of their work together.
A survey of elected officials and health officials about Dr. Detlev Helmig’s firing came back with a little support for the former CU researcher, but most would not say anything at all.
The Counties of Boulder and Broomfield, the City of Longmont along with the State of Colorado, all had ongoing financial connections with the researcher, a Western Wire investigation found.
Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones said she would like to see the “critical work” of Dr. Detlev Helmig continue, despite his recent separation from CU Boulder.
The former CU Boulder researcher was dismissed earlier this month from the university’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) after officials there found that Helmig did not maintain the required separation between his publicly funded research and private, for-profit efforts, according to a CU spokesperson.
Jones cited Helmig’s work in aiding her efforts to help launch a climate lawsuit against two oil companies in 2018. Boulder County was joined by the City of Boulder and San Miguel County in the suit.
“Dr. Helmig’s research has been instrumental in shining the spotlight on the air pollution challenges we face in Boulder County, in particular, how the emissions from the intensive oil and gas development in Weld County are blowing across the county line, leading to increased smog and health concerns, as well as contributing to global climate change,” Jones wrote in an email to the Daily Camera.
Jones echoed other lawmakers who have credited Helmig’s work in the past, like State Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg.
“Dr. Helmig’s work helped spur state lawmakers and agencies to adopt stronger policies to control emissions and protect public health. We hope this critical work will be able to continue,” she added.
Helmig’s LLC, Boulder A.I.R. has been operating since early 2018.
“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,” CU Interim Director of Communications and Chief Spokesperson Melanie Marquez Parra wrote in a statement to Western Wire last week. “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.”
But Helmig did not maintain that separation, according to the university.
“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.
Helmig had several outside projects in conjunction with local governments, like Boulder County, where he was conducting an air quality monitoring project for the past three years.
Neighboring Broomfield City and County finalized a contract with Boulder A.I.R. in late 2019 for $707,882 to monitor air quality near wells operated by Extraction Oil & Gas, Inc.
Officials with Broomfield City Council did not respond to a request for comment on the contract or Helmig’s work.
The City of Longmont proposed a five-year, two-location study of air quality with a cost exceeding $558,000 in early 2019, with $150,000 annual costs. Helmig was asked to submit a proposal by city staff, with the researcher being noted as “renowned in his field.”
Helmig won the lucrative contract, which is paid through Longmont’s sustainability program and the city’s oil and gas royalty revenues.
Helmig declined to comment to the Daily Camera about the dismissal.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which teamed with Helmig and Boulder County on the air quality project, declined comment to Western Wire inquiries about the departure.
“We have no comment on Dr. Helmig’s departure from the University of Colorado,” an agency spokesman emailed.
Broad usage of Helmig’s work by local governments and activists have given the researcher prominence in the media and at speaking engagements across the state.
“There’s so much more that could be done,” said Helmig last year in an interview with the Colorado Independent. “We’re just scratching the surface.”