For nearly three hours on Thursday night, a steady stream of Denverites — citizens, activists, lawyers and politicians — implored the city’s Board of Public Health and Environment to reject a request from infrastructure giant Kiewit Meridiam Partners for permission to do construction work on I-70 at all hours of the day through 2022.
The section of the highway being expanded runs through largely low-income, Latino swaths of northeast Denver, including the zip code a study last year found to be the most polluted in the United States.
Every one of the more than 40 people who spoke in public comment at Thursday’s meeting opposed Kiewit’s plan. Many based their arguments on the fact that ripping up the highway in the dead of night, for up to five days each week, for the next four years, would bring additional harm — sleep loss, asthma, general disruption — to Elyria-Swansea, Globeville and nearby communities of color that are already among Denver’s most vulnerable.
The speakers ranged in age from young people pleading for their neighborhood’s future to a 95-year-old doing the same. A couple choked up, many were angry and some just sounded exhausted.
There are nine members on the Board of Public Health and Environment, all appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. Only five were present on Thursday. Members Celia Vanderloop and Jim Garcia recused themselves and members Patti Shwayder and Catherine Cooney were absent for other reasons.
As 1 a.m. neared, the five members voted 3 to 2 to sign off on Kiewit’s request, albeit with one major amendment that granted permission for overnight construction for the next year, instead of through 2022.
The three yes votes came from Vice Chair Jim Rada and members Chris Wiant and Lewis Koski. Chair Alisha Brown and member Genene Duran both were opposed.
“I understand the community is not excited about either (Kiewit’s proposal) or government in general,” Wiant said, just prior to the vote. “We heard all that comment and very much appreciate the frustration and discontent. But I do have to say that I think we — er, I, at least — have great confidence that our (Public Health and Environment) staff in this situation understands exactly what’s at stake and is not gonna sit back and say, ‘Well, we don’t have to worry about this.’”
Tom Howell, project manager for Kiewit, said that the project would actually benefit nearby residents in the long term, as the new highway layout the company is now working on will eventually abate noise pollution better than the current one does. Part of the plan calls for tearing down the viaduct that has long loomed over the neighborhood and replacing it with the wider, below-grade interstate with 30-foot walls.
Said spokesman Matt Sanman, “We have worked closely with the community and Denver Department of Public Health and Environment to understand their concerns and believe we have a comprehensive plan in place that will protect the community’s interests.”
But if the night’s testimony was any measure, community members do not believe their interests are being protected. What’s at stake, resident after resident argued, is the quality of life in the neighborhood.
“Our community suffers a lot,” said Griselda Calderon, pleading with the board: “You are asking our community to pretty much be in their homes 24 hours (a day). This is like being in jail … They can’t go outside — all the dust, all the noise. You have to do something for them. You can’t do this to them.”
That plea was echoed by Maria Campos, “Our community has been a community that has suffered too much.”
Board members said the thinking behind its one-year approval is that the shorter time period will allow for review and a fresh application next year from Kiewit. Regular check-ins and reporting were already part of the plan under the four-year request.
Board member Duran kept pushing for ways to align the proposal more closely to community demands, spending significant time just after midnight exploring how the proposal might be reshaped to eliminate all nighttime construction. Kiewit previously said that that option would push the project’s end date back four or five years.
“Oftentimes when we have to come back, people have already been impacted,” Duran said. “Given that this is an underserved, vulnerable population, we really need to take the extra time to make sure we do it right the first time.”
By the time the board sat down to deliberate just before midnight, it was the word of the residents versus the collective word of Kiewit, of the Colorado Department of Transportation and city staff.
In the end, during the roll call vote, Duran paused and winced right before voting no.
Kiewit is an Omaha-based company behind some of the most massive infrastructure projects in the state and country, including the V.A. hospital in Aurora and the widening of I-25 two decades ago. It is under contract with the Colorado Department of Transportation to finish the $1.2 billion lane-widening project on a 10-mile stretch of I-70 that runs from Brighton Boulevard to Chambers Road in Aurora.
The company expected to get the work done by 2022. To meet that goal, its representatives said it needed to work at night, and needed allowances for noise.
The company brought in expert witnesses to assure the board that it would be doing no harm with its overnight plan, which includes a limit on noise pollution to an average of 75 decibels — roughly comparable to the noise made by a vacuum cleaner. The plan says the noise can at no point exceed 86 decibels, which is a level loud enough to induce hearing loss and loud enough to wake up some of the many who live right next to the highway.
Kiewit has agreed to install 7,000 feet of 12-foot-tall plywood wall to buffer some of the sound in stretches closest to homes. The Colorado Independent attended a demonstration of the wall’s effectiveness on Tuesday and found standing behind the wall makes only a marginal difference to the listener as compared to standing in front of it.
“In my opinion, there is no risk” to public health, said Dr. Jill Wayne, an audiologist Kiewit paid to testify on its behalf. “It’s not like you’re going to have this constant noise for 7,000 feet going on for four years.”
The 10-mile project will require work in segments, and Kiewit, under the agreed-upon conditions, can’t do roadwork overnight for more than five consecutive days at a time at the average decibel rate of 75.
Howell, the project manager, said the work is “very comparable” to what Kiewit did on I-25 in the south metro area.
The effort to expand I-70 began in 2011, backed by the Federal Highway Administration and the Colorado Department of Transportation. Neighbors fought unsuccessfully for years to thwart the project altogether, organizing a “Ditch the Ditch” campaign and filing several lawsuits.
Now that construction is beginning, the speakers argued, the damage will be substantial and lasting.
More people will get asthma as a result of the constant construction dust, they said, and children will spend the next few years growing up in an unhealthy environment.
They warned that people will move out, if they can afford it, just to get away from the years-long construction, and that prospecting developers will eat up their properties and kickstart gentrification. In a city that has become unaffordable to many, the neighborhoods north of I-70, once defined by heavy industry, are among the few remaining spots where housing is still attainable.
“This is the most polluted zip code in America. The land, air and water contamination are not minor issues,” said activist and City Council candidate Candi CdeBaca, who lives just south of I-70 and the planned construction zone. To add the highway expansion on top of that, she continued, “is obscene.”
The overnight construction work will begin as soon as Sept. 17, Kiewit’s Sanman said.