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Environmental health officials vouch for scientist's independence as rumors swirl in Davenport.
By Jessica Lussenhop
When Nancy Calhoun, a parent of two children at Pacific Elementary School in Davenport, heard an alarming rumor at Erin Brockovich's lecture linking a company called ChemRisk with a local scientist doing environmental monitoring, she followed a virtual trail of breadcrumbs online into the world of scientists-for-hire and corporate cover-ups.
What she learned about Kurt Fehling, one of the independent scientists contracted by Santa Cruz County Environmental Health Services to do testing for chromium-6 residue blowing in from the cement plant Cemex, was not conclusive, but she worries anyway.
"I'm not trying to say that Mr. Fehling is guilty of anything. I think he's an inappropriate choice," says Calhoun. "That's not the kind of person I want looking at the situation where my kids are involved."
A quick Google search shows that Fehling once worked for ChemRisk, a scientific consulting firm with a less-than-squeaky-clean record. Most notably, in the Brockovich chromium-6 case (the one that inspired the movie), PG&E hired ChemRisk scientists who authored a paper that downplayed the link to cancer and was subsequently used to minimize the damage for polluting corporations. The Wall Street Journal reported that ChemRisk may have plagiarized the paper and tweaked its conclusions to benefit PG&E, and founder Dennis Paustenbach resigned in the ensuing debacle.
Though Fehling was not involved in the Brockovich case, one of the first links on Google does lead to an article in The Scientist wherein Fehling, as spokesman and director of operations for ChemRisk, defends Paustenbach as a scientist.
"The Internet unfortunately lives forever," said Fehling when contacted by Metro Santa Cruz. "My ethics, my science has never been in question. My name is attached to it out there on the Internet. As for my scientific involvement, I had none." After five years at the company, in March Fehling left ChemRisk to become an independent scientist.
Steve Schneider, director of Environmental Health Services, says that when he contracted Fehling and his project co-manager Teri Copeland for the Davenport testing, Fehling warned him about his link to ChemRisk. "He was up front with me from the beginning," says Schneider. "I am not at all concerned about it. I've worked with Teri long enough to know she wouldn't associate with anybody but the best."
The county had a pre-existing contract with Copeland and Fehling to do risk assessment consulting and offered their services to the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District when news of the chromium issue first hit in October.
Both entities are currently conducting tests in Davenport, and thus far, results from the Air District's and the county's contractors have shown acceptable and comparable levels of chromium-6, according to Air District chief Ed Kendig.
"I don't see any evidence of industry bias at all," he says. "Independent contractors can't do that. If they do some shaky thing, their rep is shot. So from what I know there's nothing wrong with Kurt Fehling or his experience or honesty." Kendig says that he's in talks with Fehling and Copeland after their contract with the county runs out to do ongoing tests throughout the year in Davenport. However, he says that he will look carefully into Fehling's history before the contract is signed.
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Calhoun says that while she is certain Fehling is no criminal, she's uncomfortable with his past work and with the numerous papers he lists on his résumé with Paustenbach as a co-author, not to mention another article she found online in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, which says a paper by Fehling was used by a company to cast doubt on the cancer-causing effect of dioxin. "That's what he's built his career on, and he should go back there and not work with public health," she says. "I would prefer to start over and have completely different scientists."
Meanwhile, Fehling is closing in on the last batches of tests and says he's happy with the results and with Cemex's cooperation. As for his ethics, he says that there's no reason for anyone in Davenport to question him. "It's like at The New York Times with Jason Blair," he says. "Just because he did it doesn't mean all the other reporters are plagiarists, too."
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