State legislators set to probe I-70 project through Denver as environmental impact gets more attention
Neighborhood group plans to spend new $5,000 grant to spotlight “toxic sites” for I-70, outfall projects
Denver-based state lawmakers say a panel will take a fresh look, in response to residents’ concerns, at the environmental impact and other effects of the planned $1.2 billion expansion of Interstate 70.
At the same time, northeast Denver neighborhood activists who have been pressuring legislators to push back against the massive highway project say they also will take on environmental research themselves. The Elyria-Swansea Neighborhood Association says it has received a $5,000 grant from the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment & Justice to pay for research, community outreach and other activities surrounding two big projects, including I-70, that are set to dig into contaminated Superfund sites.
The other project, related to the highway expansion, is Denver Public Works’ construction of a larger Globeville Landing Outfall on the South Platte River, near the Denver Coliseum. That project is part of the wider Platte to Park Hill storm-drainage plan through northeast Denver.
Activists from the City Park area to Elyria-Swansea and Globeville have been meeting with officials since earlier this year as a community advisory group, or CAG.
“Even with the CAG, we feel like we’re still being spoon-fed information, and we need to research on our own what our rights are, what they’re supposed to be doing (and) who’s monitoring” the ground contamination, said Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association.
Officials from both the city and Colorado Department of Transportation have said that though the two projects will disturb contaminated soils, they are taking precautions to avoid spreading risks to surrounding areas.
At the Globeville Landing project site, the removals have included asbestos buried beneath the coliseum parking lot as well as soil tainted with arsenic and lead. The lot once was home to a smelter and later to a trash dump.
“As always, our goal is to protect public health, and we are going above and beyond to make sure we are protecting our public health,” said Celia Vanderloop, an environmental project manager on the city’s Globeville Landing project, in an interview earlier this year.
Activists also are challenging the federal air pollution standards used to grant federal approval for the I-70 expansion.
CDOT project spokeswoman Rebecca White said 15 years of environmental review on the project have covered all aspects of its potential effects on the community, environmental and otherwise.
“We have done a lot of work to share this information with local residents and will continue to do so as we move into construction,” White wrote in an email. “In fact, we recently worked with state and local partners to establish a comprehensive air quality monitor in the Swansea neighborhood — which was in direct response to community requests.”
But Dutcher and other project critics remain suspicious of the far-reaching project’s impact.
CDOT plans to expand I-70 along a 10-mile stretch, adding tolled express lanes, and it will replace a 1.8-mile viaduct with a below-grade section between Brighton and Colorado boulevards. Part of that section will be covered by a 4-acre parkland cap.
The Sanchez family has run their business, the Stop-N-Shop food store, in Denver near the I-70 viaduct for over 30 years but are moving soon as part of the Central 70 project. The business is seen here March 23, 2017.
The Globeville stormwater outfall project is underway. The state highway project is barreling toward construction early next year, though CDOT may face more lawsuits in coming months. The Federal Highway Administration in January gave the federal green light for the project, ending a lengthy environmental review process.
Legislative review will look at several projects
The General Assembly’s Transportation Legislation Review Committee will meet later this year, ahead of next year’s legislative session. The agenda includes reviews and updates concerning not only I-70 but also other large projects, including an expansion of C-470 and work to widen Interstate 25 north and south of the metro area.
Initially, House Speaker Crisanta Duran, whose district includes neighborhoods affected by the I-70 project, and Rep. Dan Pabon of northwest Denver requested an interim study committee “regarding impact mitigation of large transportation projects.” That would have focused more intently on the I-70 plan, Duran wrote in a tweet last month.
But a House Democrats spokeswoman said their request ended up getting wrapped into the standing transportation review committee.
“Coloradans deserve to know how large transportation projects impact their communities,” Duran said in a comment provided by the spokeswoman. “It’s my hope that this process of engagement will allow us to address the issues and concerns brought forward by families across the state who may be impacted.”
CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford said the department would take part in the committee.
“There are some very stringent processes that we follow when we do major projects, and we are happy to talk about how we do that,” she said. “Those processes address things like impact to environment, air quality, drainage, right of way, wildlife, construction mitigation — and so, again, we will work with the chair person about how they’d like us to talk about all of that and address it.”
Count Dutcher among project opponents who are skeptical that legislators will challenge CDOT sufficiently. But he says he’s gratified to see the attention on the project — and he hopes legislators will probe deeply, including asking questions that go to the heart of the justification for the current I-70 plan.
“How sincere will this interim committee really be?” he said. “How much integrity will it have? And is it just a (face-saving) move? That’s what we have to look at. We want them to just really consider this whole thing.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jon Murray is The Denver Post's city hall reporter. His coverage focuses on Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, the workings of the City Council and city's government interactions with Denver's people, from neighborhood issues to regulation of the marijuana industry. A Colorado native, he joined The Denver Post in 2014 after reporting on city government and the legal system for The Indianapolis Star.
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