Olympic Ambitions, Developers' Wishes Trump Human Health in Most Toxic U.S. Zip Code

Colorado Leaders' Olympic-Sized Ambitions, Developers' Wishes Eclipse Human Health in Most Toxic U.S. Zip Code
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Photo composite by Michele Swenson

Government responds to the needs of investors before people. Noam Chomsky

CDOT to the People: "Sue us."

A public meeting at Swansea Recreation Center on February 16, 2017 was intended by the Colorado Department of Transportation as a platform to present plans made by Denver and the state to widen and lower the elevated I-70 viaduct 40 feet partially below the water table in a flood plain and Superfund Site between Colorado and Brighton Blvds. The proposed I-70 trench, called the “PCL” - partially covered lowered - is an alternative previously rejected and then revived as part of the 10-mile Central 70 Project. Though long denied by many city and state officials, the creation of a 2-1/2 mile drainage system (in this case co-opting parts or all of three parks, and traversing several neighborhoods) was conceived to provide 100-year flood protection for the I-70 trench and development along I-70. Plans made largely below the radar too often excluded neighbors’ input and short-circuited environmental protections. Responding to protests at the February 16 meeting, CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt reiterated the sole recourse offered to the people: “Sue us.” He asserted that CDOT and the City had technically adhered to legal process. Insisting on a higher standard, a local resident replied, “Do the right thing, the moral thing.”

Unbeknownst to most Coloradans and cited by a participant at the February 16 meeting has been a quiet years-long effort to bring the Winter Olympics to Colorado, also significantly impacting I-70 expansion plans. A City document titled Master Plan for the National Western Center lays out extensive plans for the current National Western Stock Show complex to accommodate two large arenas and sports facilities, as well as Olympic venues and temporary housing. Facilities include: “Ice capability for hockey...a possible Winter Olympics bid..” and “Accommodate potential for Olympic long track speed skating oval.”

Laying the groundwork for an Olympics bid began soon after the 2011 mayoral election when Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper enlisted close associates, including Steve Farber (influential lobbyist and power-broker of the national law firm , Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP, a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative corporate ally), to serve on the Denver Olympics Exploratory Committee with intent for a 2022 Winter Olympics bid. When the U.S. Olympic Committee decided to sit out that year, ambitions were projected toward a 2026 Winter Olympics bid.

Among investors laying claim to properties along the I-70 corridor is Elevation Development Group, a real estate investment and development firm formed by sons of Farber. The group has purchased properties for development adjacent to I-70, the future National Western Center and River North District.

Widening, Lowering of I-70 Cited as Necessity for Olympics Venue

By 2012, Governor Hickenlooper reportedly instructed his newly-appointed CDOT executive director, Donald Hunt, to revive the previously rejected plan to widen and lower the 1.8 mile long I-70 viaduct that bisects Elyria- Swansea neighborhoods, into a below-grade trench, known as the “PCL” - the partially covered lowered alternative.

Hunt acknowledged that previous proposals to lower I-70 below grade had been shelved due to concerns about groundwater contamination and cost, but he asserted that the I-70 lowering would be kept “shallow” to avoid groundwater problems. Hunt admitted the PCL would add $150 million to the anticipated $1 billion cost of the Central 70 project, making it “one of the most expensive projects in the history of the Colorado Department of Transportation.” Simultaneously, officials reported that new federal transportation funding was unlikely in the near future, requiring additional state monies for transportation projects.

President/CEO of the National Western Stock Show, Paul Andrews, in 2014 named the ”PCL” (I-70 widened from six lanes to 10 lanes plus 2 auxiliary lanes in each direction, lowered into a trench, with a cover) “of vital importance to the future of our site.” Some regarded the cover over the lowered freeway essential to a potential Olympics venue, to connect the National Western Center, the Coliseum and River North District. Expansion of I-70 was cited as opportunity to create a transportation connector for the proposed Olympics venue by way of Union Station downtown to mountain venues. Investor/developer interests hailed a widened, submerged I-70 as a gateway to Denver, a necessary investment for the mayor’s envisioned “Corridor of Opportunity.”

Mayor's “Corridor of Opportunity” for Public Subsidies, Private Profits

One of the City’s strategy consultants, Coltivar Group is a self-described “boutique management consulting firm” acting as catalyst for construction industry growth, an “immense scope of investment” and increasing profitability, often by means of “public/private partnerships.” “P3s” often equate to public subsidies for projects yielding private profits. Such private for-profit toll lanes are part of CDOT’s plan for I-70 expansion. By 2015 Coltivar promoted Mayor Hancock’s “comprehensive multi–project development strategy” as “ripe with possibility for citizens, businessmen, and the construction industry.”

An early Denver Chamber of Commerce presentation likewise lauded the NDCC’s leveraging of multiple projects along the Mayor’s “Corridor of Opportunity” toward achievement of “funding options” and “a broad range of investment,” as well as “shared opportunities for creation of Public/Private Partnerships.”

The city’s website expansively describes the “mayor’s bold vision” for Denver’s “northern gateway entrance into the Mile High City”- “six projects covering...more than 3,000 acres along Denver's nearly 23-mile 'Corridor of Opportunity'…..one of the largest urban redevelopment projects in the nation currently.”

While vaguely alluding to drainage issues surrounding I-70 development, the City website has called for "Reclaiming the river with a new park....greenway, transportation improvements, improved drainage, and identifying sustainable development opportunities along the riverfront." Not mentioned is the need for 100-year flood protection arising from I-70 development projects.

Only by uniting the needs and ambitions of CDOT, the City and County of Denver, investors and developers around the I-70 corridor and its drainage requirements, could a plan be devised that ultimately shifts environmental and financial burdens to the people of Denver and Colorado.

Developers’ Needs Prevail: I-70 Alternative Given Short Shrift

The fact that developers are relieved of responsibility for providing flood protection for their own projects may help explain why there was no serious consideration of the alternative I-270/I-76 route north of I-70 which would bypass populated areas, providing some relief from the polluting freeway dividing north Denver neighborhoods.

Alternate I-270/I-76 Reroute

Alternate I-270/I-76 Reroute

A 2008 Groundwork Denver report acknowledged that Elyria and Swansea bisected by I-70 in 1964, spanned the most polluted zip code in Colorado, encompassing two high-priority Superfund sites and numerous contaminating industries. Classified as “Environmental Justice” communities, they are defined by the EPA as “overburdened communities... suffering an undue burden of environmental pollution, often predominantly poor and minority,” that deserve to have a “fair opportunity to participate in EPA’s permitting process” related to “significant public health or environmental impacts.” Groundwork Denver’s self-described mission is to “partner with lower-income communities” to “promote health and well-being” and positive environmental change.

The 2008 report also assumed realignment of I-70 to permit re-connection of previously divided neighborhoods: “The potential realignment of I-70 viaduct would remove a major barrier in the heart of Swansea and create significant opportunities for new development and street connections in the neighborhood...”

Rerouting I-70 to the north by widening the existing I-270/I-76 highways, would avoid hazards associated with the I-70 trench and drainage projects. Already slated for expansion, the I-270/I-76 alternative beltway lies principally in an industrial area, bypassing heavily populated neighborhoods. The diverted route would add only about 1.8 miles to the east-west trip along I-70, and is reportedly already used by some truckers to avoid the I-70/I-25 bottleneck.

One of multiple alternatives proposed by CDOT in 2003, the I-270/I-76 reroute was subsequently dismissed with a written cost estimate using “terribly flawed” assumptions, reported League of Women Voters’ transportation issue specialist Cynthia Thorstad in 2014.

The I-70 East Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) in 2016 did not mention or evaluate the I-270/I-76 alternative route.Though CDOT has claimed to study this beltway alternative, the only ‘reroute’ studied was an earlier, much more minor detour terminating at the National Western Complex.

Instead of the alternative, CDOT chose the option to remove 56 homes and 17 businesses. With developers prevailing, gentrification begins to displace residents, as property values and taxes climb and the need for 100-year flood insurance generated by the stormwater proposal is out of reach for many.

The Congress for New Urbanism’s 2017 “Freeways without Futures” report includes Central 70 among top ten highways with opportunity for rehabilitation, to reconnect neighborhoods and to “remove a blight from the physical, economic, and environmental health of urban communities,” by replacing the highway with a walkable, bikeable boulevard.

Project Advanced in Unremediated Superfund Site, Floodplain, Most Polluted U.S. Zip Code

Many in Denver did not learn of the full scope of the City and CDOT’s plans for I-70 until late 2015 or early 2016, well after Hunt’s November 2014 resignation, even as serious concerns remained about ground and surface water contamination, related to plans to lower the I-70 viaduct in a flood plain and unremediated Superfund site.

The 80216 zip code encompassing Northeast Denver neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and River North, site of the Central 70 Project, has suffered a quadruple whammy. A 2017 ATTOM Data Solution study reported 80216 the most polluted among over 8,600 zip codes nationwide, including the Love Canal site of one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters. Zip Code 80216 tipped the scale on all four environmental risk factors considered: Air quality; the number of pollution-generating facilities; two mostly unremediated Superfund sites; and six brownfield sites, contaminated former industrial properties.

The bisection of the Elyria-Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods by I-70 in 1964, resulted in high quantities of small particulate vehicle pollution and high rates of associated disease. Four City Council districts adjacent to the I-70 corridor reportedly experience pollutants twice as high as the rest of Denver, resulting in 50 percent higher death rate due to cardiovascular disease and cancer, higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and childhood asthma. Average lifespans are shortened by 3-1/2 years. Environmental attorney Robert Yuhnke noted that health issues were overlooked in the 2008 I-70 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, with no accountability for the health effects, nor for the fact that the 80216 zip code falls within the unremediated Vasquez/I-70 Superfund Site - placed on the National Priority List of Superfund Sites in 1999. The site of former smelters contains elevated levels of cadmium, arsenic, zinc and lead, as well as asbestos from a former landfill site.

CDOT’s response? Promise residents near the highway air conditioner units and interior storm windows, so they don’t have to breathe foul outdoor air.

Costs & Risks Assigned to the People - City and CDOT Deny Link between Projects

As stated in the 2016 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Central 70 Project, the primary groups planning development along the I-70 corridor - CDOT, RTD and North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative – were united under the umbrella of the Multi-Agency Technical Team (MATT), who in October 2013 signed a MOU regarding the 100-year flood protection needs of their respective projects along I-70. From their collaboration emerged the “Platte to Park Hill” stormwater drainage system proposal, 2-½ miles of pipes, detention ponds and open canals across north Denver south of I-70, roughly lining up with 39th Ave. The Environmental Impact Statement ultimately approved by the Federal Highway Administration did not include evaluation of the Platte to Park Hill flood protection project.

City spokespersons consistently denied the link between proposed 100-year flood drainage protection and the I-70 trench. The Platte-to-Park Hill drainage project was not part of the City's September 2014 stormwater master plan, but nevertheless was assigned priority over flood-prevention projects citywide. The City initially characterized the diversion project as a “neighborhood flood project” to protect neighborhoods to the south of 39th Avenue from flooding - none of which would be significantly protected. Indeed, the I-70 FEIS describes the long-time goal to protect areas north of 39th Avenue against flooding.

The 2015 City-CDOT Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) states the connection between P2P drainage and the I-70 trench projects. At a Cabinet in the Community Meeting on November 19, 2016, Mayor Hancock belatedly acknowledged to community members the direct link between the projects.

Even as Globeville Landing Outfall, at the west end of the project, is expanded to accommodate four times the previous drainage into the South Platte River, unaddressed is the low-lying 4-square-mile Globeville-Utah Junction Basin, lacking natural drainage and vulnerable to heavy flooding. It is among nine out of 67 basins in Denver regarded as high-priority flood-reduction projects. City officials gave assurances that studies of the river, including one by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (still two years out) could redress Globeville’s high flooding potential “in three to five years”, with ”possible” federal funding.Two independent engineers predict the expansion of the Globeville Landing Outfall will place low-lying Globeville at increased risk of flooding.

A 15-minute video of a Civil Engineer's overview of the drainage and I-70 trench projects videotaped two months before Globeville Landing Park was leveled by the City in January 2017: The Perfect Storm: Platte-to-Park Hill…

Funding, Environmental Burdens Shifted to People

By 2016 CDOT cited a $9 billion shortfall in unfunded priorities for statewide projects over ten years. At a 2016 Transportation Commission meeting, the Colorado Bridge Enterprise Fund was named in jeopardy because half of its funds for the ensuing 30 years have been allocated to the 1.8 miles of the Central 70 project.

Rather than developers and CDOT covering flood protection for their own projects, the City and State collaborated to ultimately pass costs to residents. The mayor, urged by CDOT, requested and received City Council support for an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) between CDOT and the City, to provide 100-year flood protection for I-70 - signed prior to environmental approval.

Denver also agreed to contribute $90 million requested by CDOT toward the estimated $1.2 billion Central 70 highway project. In return, CDOT offered to contribute $43 million of the $69 million estimated cost of the Globeville Landing Outfall “Early Action Drainage” segment, required prior to excavation of the I-70 trench. CDOT insisted that Denver manage the drainage project while CDOT maintains review power. The complex IGA was pushed through within a week by the lame-duck City Council on July 6, 2015.

In 2016, City Council voted to increase wastewater fees to Denver residents by $383 million over 30 years, 54 percent projected for the Platte-to-Park Hill Stormwater Systems project. The largely unfunded balance of storm water needs citywide is estimated at over $1 billion.

Incomplete Studies, Lack of Community Involvement

A Community Involvement Plan is mandated by Congress whenever citizens are to be exposed to Superfund pollution. Responding to unanswered questions, North Denver neighbors presented a petition with over 2,000 signatures to the mayor in November 2016 urging a pause prior to start of work at Globeville Landing Park, pending outcomes of studies and completion of a Community Involvement Plan. City Council members Rafael Espinoza and Debbie Ortega also requested that Public Works pause and re-evaluate options to protect Globeville against flood risk.

Even as excavation was begun at Globeville Landing Outfall in early 2017, results of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer study remained two years out. Also incomplete, an Urban Drainage Flood Hazard Area Delineation study with flood modeling of 50 miles of the South Platte River. An Urban Drainage Flood Control District study of the Montclair and Park Hill Basins requested by Denver in 2013, is incomplete. A resident tracking the project notes the City directed Urban Drainage to "black out" the Platte-to-Park Hill drainage portion of the plan as "done," effectively foreclosing evaluation of that part of the project.

View neighbors’ concerns re: I-70 and Platte-to-Park Hill projects: Corridor of Opportunity/Superfund Dig...Neighbors the Last to Know

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The City and CDOT short-circuited process, bypassing review of both parts of the joint project in the Environmental Impact Statement as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). An agreement assigned much of the hands-on construction of the project to the City, while CDOT contributes payment and reviews plans, a sleight-of-hand effectively bypassing public scrutiny.

Simultaneously, the City and EPA quietly agreed to shortcut an ongoing environmental remedial process by naming the Globeville Early Action Drainage Project (in an unremediated Superfund Site) a "Time Critical Removal Action.” A TCRA sets less stringent pollution standards, permitting applicants to forego the Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis, and bypassing a Community Involvement Plan. Rather, TCRA was invoked to rush completion of the Globeville portion of the P2P Drainage project to meet CDOT’s accelerated schedule, not public protection in an emergency, for which the TCRA is intended.

Requesting “permission to pollute” from the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, the City was reportedly granted a 13-month exception to discharge higher levels of pollutants into the South Platte River during excavation at Globeville Outfall. Civil Engineer Adrian Brown notes that the city has been granted the right to “pollute to the limit,” dumping contaminants into the river at a point a mere two miles upstream from Adams County water supply.

A Sierra Club lawsuit charges the EPA with changing measurement methodology, effectively permitting higher levels of pollution, violating the Clean Air Act’s Ambient Air Quality Standards. A second lawsuit by neighbors contests the City’s re-purposing of a large part of City Park Golf Course, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, into a detention-drainage facility, in violation of the Denver City Charter.

After the Federal Department of Transportation green-lighted the project in early 2017, it was anticipated that NEPA process deficits in CDOT’s I-70 planning, including exclusion of Globeville, City Park and Cole neighborhoods, would require a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

Two more lawsuits were filed as of July 10, the first charging the Federal Highway Administration with violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failure to conduct sufficient oversight regarding the Environmental Impact Statement, failing to account for the flood protection portion of the project, even as the City and CDOT "intentionally hid the connection between the Platte to Park Hill Drainage Project and the Central I-70 project." A fourth lawsuit charges violations of the Clean Air Act.

View neighbors testifying before Denver City Council in early 2017: Superfund Dig: Denver the next Flint, Mi?

Addendum Added September 12, 2017:

Joel Dyer’s article Behind Closed Doors (Boulder Weekly, 7-28-16) revealed a secret recording obtained by Greenpeace of an Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission conference in September 2015. An oil and gas spokesperson boasted of the industry taking majority control of many Colorado City Councils, including Denver, where they counted a 9-4 majority in favor of oil and gas. He boasted “we’ve been able to keep... municipal ballot measures off in every city and county across Colorado...” Indeed, the oil and gas industry were primary contributors to Amendment 71 on the 2016 ballot, effectively putting the ballot initiative out of reach for all but wealthy elites.

In the same way that the Oil and Gas lobby controls our State legislature and many local governments, investor/developer interests control our Denver City government. The Nation Magazine described how Mayor Hancock has been predominantly funded by developers, led by Pat Hamill, CEO of homebuilder Oakwood Homes, reportedly contributing six times the legal limit by giving through five different businesses, even as he served as Hancock’s 2015 finance chair.

Special interest elites in our State and City enjoy unfettered financial influence and access, choosing our candidates and writing policy.

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