Grassroots lawsuit aims to halt $1.2 billion highway expansion in Denver’s poorest neighborhoods

Grassroots lawsuit aims to halt $1.2 billion highway expansion in Denver’s poorest neighborhoods

Residents and activists from some of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods sued the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), claiming projects it approved will be harmful to their environment, health, and socioeconomic situation.

The latest lawsuit, which counts high-profile developer Kyle Zeppelin as a plaintiff, is aimed at halting a $1.2 billion I-70 expansion project in northeast Denver. Critics say it will significantly harm an already economically depressed part of Colorado’s fast-growing and largest city.  

Filed Sunday night, the lawsuit says the federal transportation agency didn’t accurately assess the environmental consequences of the project, as well as a drainage project in north Denver between the Platte River and Park Hill. Plaintiffs in the case are asking a judge for an injunction that would put the project on hold until a court reviews the case.

Lead attorney Melissa Hailey said the lawsuit aims to send the I-70 project, as well as the planned Platte to Park Hill drainage ditch, back through an analysis and approval process via a new study that fully encompasses their impacts. The I-70 project, known as Central 70, calls for the demolition of the 53-year-old I-70 viaduct through the Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods. It is to be replaced by a wider, below-grade stretch of interstate over which a four-acre park will be built.  An express lane will be added in each direction between Chambers Road and Brighton Boulevard.

The legal wrangling could take up to a year, so the group plans to file a temporary stay to stop current construction for the drainage ditch.

If the government re-examines the expansion, Hailey told The Colorado Independent, “this alternative isn’t going to look very good up next to the others.” Maybe, she said, “people are going to have a very different idea about which way the community should go.”

At the heart of their case is the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, a federal law that regulates the planning phase of projects.  The scope drawn for estimating a federal project’s impact must be thorough enough to consider significant impacts of the proposed development through an environmental impact statement, or EIS. Such findings must be presented to the public, and allow them the opportunity to respond.

Plaintiffs in the Denver project lawsuit allege the scope of the project’s EIS was too narrow and therefore should be invalid. For example, they say, the study didn’t account for Superfund status of the I-70 stretch between Brighton and Colorado Boulevards considered for a below-grade highway. A Superfund site is an area identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a candidate for cleanup of hazardous waste.

That stretch of I-70 runs through Denver zip code 80216, which The Denver Post reported is the most polluted zip code in the country, more so than San Bernardino’s in California and the Love Canal region of New York. 80216 includes Globeville, Elyria and Swansea, collectively referred to as GES. They are three of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods, with the majority of residents identifying as Hispanic.

Candi Cdebaca, one of the leaders of Ditch The Ditch, a local group fighting the I-70 project, said during a July 10 news conference to announce the suit that 80 percent of the households in the area do not make more than  $50,000 a year.

Cdebaca, who lives in Swansea, is a plaintiff in a separate lawsuit, that one against the EPA, involving the I-70 expansion project. She noted that the GES neighborhoods have 70 percent higher asthma rates, cardiovascular death and disease, and cancer, as a result of I-70 and exhaust pollution.

“The option [the Colorado Department of Transportation and the FHWA] chose is the most harmful, will have the most impact on the communities it’s happening in, and it’s kind of a mystery to us how even with the data that they’re including in the Record of Decision, this was the option that was chosen,” she said.

Zeppelin, a prominent developer in the GES and RiNo areas and the lead plaintiff in the case, cited the environmental and community impacts, as well as a lack of long-term effectiveness of the expansion as opposed to improving mass transit options and encouraging more environmentally friendly systems, as  just a few reasons why it shouldn’t go through.

“We are saying no way are you going to jam this through the process, dig up City Park, create pollution impacts on people and kids and [the] elderly during the five years of construction hell that they aren’t talking about, and understate the true cost and not have to study or answer for the normal process,” Zeppelin said in a prepared statement at the news conference.

Another reason for the suit is a potential connection between the expansion project and the drainage project from Platte to Park Hill.

Aaron Goldhamer, one of the attorneys in the lawsuit, said the drainage project was pursued with too narrow of a scope to fast-track it, as laid out in an evaluation by Denver Public Works in 2014.

The evaluation showed that, as opposed to a storm pipe system, open channels would better serve the kind of large-scale floods that the drainage system would accommodate. Additionally, by adding an open channel option, the drainage project would have had to expand the scope of their study so greatly that they would have had to effectively start from the beginning with their NEPA approval.

“People who know what they’re talking about and are forward thinking on this stuff have seen what a ridiculous project this is and what a bad idea it is,” Goldhamer told The Colorado Independent. “It’s just a shame that our local leaders don’t see the same thing.”

The FHWA did not respond to The Colorado Independent’s request for comment on this lawsuit, saying that it does not comment on litigation.

In a statement in response to the lawsuit, Anthony DeVito, CDOT’s project director for the Central 70 project, pointed to what he called the agency’s “unprecedented” community outreach and “thorough technical analysis,” saying he was confident it exceeded the standards set by NEPA. That statement says the agency analyzed more than 90 alternatives, held hundreds of public meetings, and that the FHA’s sign-off on the project in January concluded a 14-year environmental impact statement process.

“We believe this process, our analysis, and this project will stand up under the toughest legal scrutiny,” DeVito said.

Work with residents, business and others with interests in the project will continue as the lawsuit proceeds, the statement said. CDOT plans to select a developer team later this summer with construction set to begin in 2018.

Another lawsuit was filed late Monday against the FHWA. The plaintiffs in that case include the Colorado Latino Forum, Sierra Club, and the neighborhood associations for Chafee Park, Elyria and Swansea. While both lawsuits deal with NEPA, the suit filed on Monday focuses directly on the health risks that result from the poor air quality caused by I-70, according to Ean Thomas Tafoya, a spokesperson from the Colorado Latino Forum.

This story was updated Wednesday, July 12 to include comments from the Colorado Department of Transportation. Cover image photo credit: Lucy Haggard. 

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Lucy Haggard

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