Raquel Casillas, a 32-year-old who lives on 45th Street near an I-70 off-ramp in Denver, said her 8-year-old son woke her up one night to tell her there was an earthquake.
But it wasn’t an earthquake. Construction on I-70 in Elyria-Swansea, part of a four-year lane-widening project that began last August, shook the whole house, she said. The project, slated for completion in 2022, will add an express lane in both directions, demolish an aging viaduct, and lower the highway between Brighton and Colorado boulevards.
“My main concern has been vibrations,” Casillas told the Board of Public Health and Environment during a meeting on the project Thursday night at the Swansea Recreation Center.
Casillas said her husband and 11-year-old stepson have asthma, which she said has been made worse by dust kicked up from construction. Traffic delays and detours prevent her from getting to work on time, she said. Meanwhile, she said she worries about the toll sleepless nights will take on her four children, three of whom are starting the new school year.
“The lights are so intense that I cannot sleep,” she told city air quality regulators.
Outside the recreation center, a backhoe clawed at the ground beneath the I-70 viaduct. It was partially hidden behind a 12-foot-tall plywood wall, intended as a noise buffer.
The nine-member Board of Public Health and Environment held a five-hour public meeting before it decided to give the project contractor, Omaha-based Kiewit Meridiam Partners, permission to exceed night-time city noise limits for another year. The current one-year noise variance expires in September.
Night work is needed to get the project completed on time, a company representative said. Officials with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment said completing the project as soon as possible will reduce health impacts, such as exposure to dust. About a half-dozen complaints have been logged through calls received on a 24-hour hotline, city officials said. All have been investigated, they said, and Kiewit was found to be in compliance with its noise allowance.
For residents in this majority Latino neighborhood, construction on the $1.2 billion, 10-mile project compounds other troubles that come with living in an area that has a long and lasting history of air and soil pollution. And now that construction is underway, residents, who last year sought to block the project from happening, are trying to cope with the consequences.
The viaduct running through the community was built in 1964 and is crumbling. The Colorado Department of Transportation began planning its replacement in the mid-2000s. Since then, neighborhood groups and environmentalists have been sounding alarms over the additional health impacts residents will face due to dust, traffic and noise. A “Ditch the Ditch” campaign was organized to oppose the project.
Roughly 60 people attended Thursday night’s meeting, but few sought to halt the project. Some said the approval of the noise allowance was inevitable. Instead, they brought attention to vibrations, which they said keep them up at night and give them headaches. They also said they worry about their cement foundations. Some of the homes in Elyria-Swansea are over a century old.
City health officials said bylaws do not allow them to regulate vibrations and that there is little precedent elsewhere about how to do it. Cities like Toronto have vibration regulations, environmental advocates pointed out.
“It’s a legitimate concern,” said Danica Lee, director of public health inspections for the Department of Public Health and Environment. She said the department is committed to “looking into the issue of how vibrations are regulated and enforced.”
Many of the residents thanked the board for coming to the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. The previous meeting was held in Denver’s City and County Building.
“I do encourage you all to drive around a bit to get a feel for what we go through here,” said Candi CdeBaca, a Denver councilwoman who lives just south of the viaduct.
On Thursday afternoon, the smell of the Purina Dog Chow plant was strong. Looming to the north were the stacks from the Suncor oil refinery, which earlier this summer spewed hydrogen cyanide into the air. The area is home to two superfund sites, including the Asarco smelter site. The region is one of the nation’s most polluted urban zip codes, according to a 2017 report by the property research firm ATTOM Data Solutions. The neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea have asthma rates higher than the state average, and increasing.
As part of a settlement stemming from a 2017 lawsuit over the project, the Colorado Department of Transportation agreed to pay for part of a health study on air pollution in the area. According to the state, the study will piggyback on a 2014 Health Impact Assessment by the city of Denver. That study stated that Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea residents “experience a higher incidence of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and asthma” compared to other neighborhoods.
Casillas blames contaminated soil for her fruitless efforts to grow a lawn. Three family members who lived in her current home had cancer, she said. But this doesn’t faze her. Nor do the vibrations from the nearby freight train or frequent semi-trucks. She grew up with it, she said.
The highway construction is different. And she knows it’s going to last for years. There are more than seven demolitions planed in the years ahead, according to Kiewit. The noisest part of the project will come when the company tears down the viaduct.
She said she doesn’t want to force her kids to stay inside with the windows shut. Hotel vouchers only go so far, and, she said, the company only offered her one. She also doesn’t want to sell her home because it was her grandmother’s. Besides, she said, she’s not sure she could afford another place in Denver.
“There’s not a lot I can do,” she told The Colorado Independent after the meeting. “So I just roll with the punches.”