Gov. Jared Polis is not stopping construction to widen Interstate 70 near Elyria-Swansea and Globeville in Denver, despite concerns that the project is making nearby residents more vulnerable to COVID-19.
The decision, confirmed by the governor’s office on Thursday, comes after two dozen environmental and community organizations and 10 elected officials sent a letter to Polis last week saying the air pollution caused by the massive highway expansion project is exacerbating respiratory problems at a time when scores of Denverites are suffering from a respiratory virus that already has killed 374 people in Colorado.
The $1.2 billion 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. Residents in the majority Latino neighborhoods adjacent to the interstate long have raised concerns about air and noise pollution from the construction. Residents of the Globeville, Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods already have asthma rates higher than the state average. And those rates are increasing.
The health risk has been heightened, residents say, as research from Harvard University in April shows that even a small rise in long-term exposure to PM2.5, a type of particulate pollution that spews from diesel-powered backhoes and cranes, can increase the risk of death from COVID-19.
But Polis and his team of health experts don’t believe data collected from monitors along the highway is cause to halt construction of the project at this time.
“Colorado is committed to protecting public health in the vicinity of this and all projects and the administration is especially mindful of how important air quality monitoring activities are during the COVID-19 pandemic. We don’t currently see a data-based justification for halting work on this project, but will continue to work closely with community members to minimize project impacts and reconnect neighborhoods. We are happy to continue a dialogue with all stakeholders throughout all stages of this project,” said Conor Cahill, a spokesman for the governor’s office.
Monitors installed by the state and city of Denver along the highway show that PM2.5 levels exceeded federal health guidelines just once in January at a site at 49th Ave. and Acoma St. in Globeville. The three monitors near the Swansea Elementary School indicate that PM10, a slightly larger form of particulate matter than PM2.5 that includes dust from construction sites, has not exceeded federal health guidelines in the last year, though one monitor at the school was taken offline from November 2019 to February 2020 for repairs, according to a state analysis of data collected along the highway.
There’s no reason to believe current particulate matter levels pose an ongoing threat to the public health and environment, said Andrew Bare, a spokesman for the Air Pollution Control Division. Bare said PM10 measurements are below federal health limits and most monitors for the pollutant are “significantly down” from their March 2019 levels.
Across Colorado, there have been “significant” declines in air pollution as driving and industrial activity have slowed during the pandemic. Roads once congested with automobiles are being closed to cars and opened to walkers, runners and cyclists. But along the I-70 corridor near Globeville and Elyria-Swansea (GES), where dust visibly wafts fom the construction site, residents say they don’t feel like their air has improved much.
“The construction creates so much pollution that even the decrease in transportation in the area is not enough to make a significant impact,” said Annie Martínez, an lawyer who lives in Elyria-Swansea.
“You’ve got GES still suffocating and choking on air and we got bike lanes for the middle class and the upper class in Denver… It’s just another example of racial disparities in terms of equity. We get scraps if we’re lucky and we have to beg for them.”
Preliminary state data on race and ethnicity show Latinos make up about 20% of the state’s population but 30% of the diagnosed COVID-19 cases. According to the Economic Policy Institute, less than one in five black workers and roughly one in six Hispanic workers nationally are able to work from home compared to roughly one and three white people.
Martínez said people who live in Elyria Swansea are both more exposed to COVID-19, because many of the Latinos who live there work at essential jobs, and more vulnerable due to a legacy of pollution in the area abutting the interstate and near the heavily industrial Commerce City. 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.
“I think it’s an indication of the inequities and underlying conditions of black and brown people. Being poor is a comorbidity. Being black and brown is also. You are set up from the jump — from birth — from behind,” Martínez said. “The community deserves some respite.”
One week after community groups and state and local elected officials sent a letter to Polis asking for a moratorium on highway construction during the stay-at-home order, members of the Colorado Latino Forum were offered 30 minutes to speak with his staff about their concerns. They were optimistic ahead of the phone meeting. But only Betsy Markey, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, and a staffer were on the call, without any state air quality officials present. They left without an answer to their request regarding construction on I-70.
“Considering that conversations will be ongoing, I’m still optimistic. Maybe not as much as I was before the call,” Martínez said. “I’m still hopeful but a little more tempered.”