Toxic Shock

So you think you know Denver? You've toured the Molly Brown House, walked the streets of historic LoDo and ridden the Cultural Connection Trolley to Greek Town and back.

Well, you ain't smelled nothing yet. If you want to know the real story of Denver--not the dusty-cowboy mythology that the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau likes to force-feed tourists--you've got to use your nose. There's something rotten in these here parts, and the folks at the Colorado People's Environmental and Economic Network are more than happy to help you get acquainted with the acrid odors rising out of the north part of town.

According to a 1997 report COPEEN compiled based on Environmental Protection Agency data, the Globeville, Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods, along the city's northernmost border, make up the second-most-polluted area in Denver. It's not surprising, either: 72 percent of the residents are Latino, 19 percent are white, 8 percent are black and 1 percent are American Indian. The U.S. General Accounting Office has confirmed that nationwide, communities of color are disproportionately polluted. COPEEN is dedicated to achieving some environmental justice; to that end, the group has been hosting "Toxic Tours," afternoon-long excursions through the three neighborhoods, since 1994. And at the end of a decade that's seen the city and state swimming in one of the best economies on record--while the people in the Globeville, Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods are still drowning in toxic waste and poverty--perhaps it's time to take one of these tours.

Executive director of the Cross Community Coalition (COPEEN's parent organization) Lorraine Granado, 41, grew up in Swansea and has seen drastic changes in her once-pleasant childhood neighborhood. Despite a litany of health complaints that she attributes to the area's excessive pollution, Granado remains energetic. She speaks about this neighborhood, which has been almost completely swallowed by the industry that has expanded around it, with equal parts of passion and sadness. "Growing up, this area here was open space," she says, pointing out of the window of her blue Honda with a grand gesture. "We used to call it Bicycle Hills. We used to ice-skate on the ponds in the winter."

No more. "Today, every place we've had a piece of green space, the city's sold the space to dirty industry." Although the area has always had its share of heavy industry, in the mid-1980s the city opened it up as an enterprise zone, promising the community that the increase in the number of new businesses would mean an employment boom for the residents. Though the tax incentives brought in more companies, the neighborhood's 12 percent unemployment rate remains the highest in the city.

The first site on the Toxic Tour is Swansea Elementary School, found directly beneath I-70 near Columbine Street. The school's playground is darkened by the concrete structure that seems to be only a few feet above. "The kids get to play with all the heavy metals and co-contaminants that fall on their heads," Granado notes wryly.

From there it's time to fasten your seatbelt: Granado's presentation goes into high gear as she points out oil refineries, PCB hazards, sewage-treatment facilities, diesel-truck lots and the Public Service Company's coal-burning plant. Driving through an auto salvage yard, Granado peers through an open garage door to see a diaper-clad toddler running around the rusted-out cars. "There's a baby in there," she says. "That's just great!"

Granado has a war story for almost every eyesore she passes--tales of bureaucratic nightmares, legal tangles and confrontations with business owners. And in the cases where COPEEN's demands have resulted in city action, she's seen little relief. For instance, the Denver City Council passed ordinances banning junkyards and regulating which residential streets trucks can drive on, but it hasn't assigned a full-time zoning inspector to enforce the ordinances in that area.

At times during the tour, Granado seems overwhelmed by the mag-nitude of the problem. "Look at this shit," she says softly, shaking her head.

Despite the preponderance of pollution Granado cites, she says the sheer amount of it isn't what has the greatest impact on the people who take the tour, whose participants include college kids, law school students and Colorado Department of Health and EPA officials. What most surprises the tourists are the signs of life that flourish despite the conditions: Hidden from the commuters who zoom across on the highway above are white-shuttered houses, rose gardens trimmed to perfection and Big Wheels carrying laughing kids who kick up the dusty earth at a mobile-home park. The juxtaposition of families living so close to polluters illustrates the crux of the community's problems.

But Granado says it still has a small-town feeling that's worth fighting for. "We're not a trash can. It's wonderful to have an honest-to-God neighborhood. I know most of my neighbors. I like them and they like me."

Granado says that these northern neighborhoods simply lack the political clout to have their concerns taken seriously by city officials. "They have this notion that it's just a few ol' colored folks that could move if they wanted to," she says. "So much for the Year of the Neighborhood."

She thinks it's unfair that her neighborhood must shoulder a disproportionate part of the city's pollution. If everyone is going to enjoy the economic benefits of heavy industry, then let them take part of the responsibility, she says. "Let people in Cherry Creek take their share. Don't dump on us. We're not expendable."

--Chris LaMorte

Toxic Tours of Denver, sponsored by the Colorado People's Environmental and Economic Network. Call 303-292-1236 to arrange a tour.

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Chris LaMorte

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