Denver Health Board Approves Another 12-Month Noise Variance for I-70 Expansion

Denver Health Board Approves Another 12-Month Noise Variance for I-70 Expansion
Chase Woodruff
The contractor overseeing the $1.3 billion overhaul of a ten-mile stretch of Interstate 70 in north Denver will be allowed to continue exceeding nighttime noise limits for at least another twelve months.

After five hours of public testimony and deliberation, the Denver Board of Public Health and Environment voted 4-1 on Thursday, August 8, to approve a one-year extension to the noise variance granted to Kiewit Infrastructure Company for its work on the Central 70 Project. It’s the second time the board has given the controversial project permission to exceed the noise limits set by city ordinance, which Kiewit says is necessary to dramatically shorten the project’s timeline, after an initial twelve-month variance was granted last year. That variance had been scheduled to expire next month.

The length of the extension had been a point of contention heading into Thursday’s meeting. Earlier this year, Kiewit requested a three-year extension that would run through the project’s expected completion date — a request it had also made prior to last year’s twelve-month variance. The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment countered by recommending an eighteen-month extension, while impacted residents wanted another year-long period to allow for more accountability. Ultimately, both department staff and the board agreed to residents’ request.

“If it sends the message to the community that we hear you, that we’re concerned that you’re concerned, I think it’s a small price to pay for Kiewit to have a twelve-month term,” said boardmember Chris Wiant.

The variance approved by the board Thursday also included other changes and conditions recommended by DDPHE staff, including provisions that reduce the number of consecutive nights on which high-intensity construction work can be done. The department has conducted regular noise monitoring throughout construction, and staff said Thursday that no violations have been recorded.

“During the course of our monitoring, as well as complaint investigations, there was no evidence of violations of the variance that was approved last September,” said Danica Lee, director of DDPHE’s public health investigations unit.

During a public comment period, residents pushed back on those claims. Many people don’t use the official complaint process, they said, while those who do are often told that impacts like rerouted truck traffic aren’t the project’s responsibility, or that the low, rumbling vibrations many residents have experienced aren’t covered by the city’s noise ordinance.

“The vibrations keep me up, the noise keeps me up; I can’t sleep,” resident Sanjuana Romero told the board. “It’s really hard to live through this. I’m sleep-deprived. My head hurts all the time.”

"This project is hugely impactful to me and my neighbors," said Jennifer Winkel. "We live with smell already. We have dust. Semis are on our streets all the time because of road closures. We deal with noise and health issues."

From the start, the Central 70 Project has been vehemently opposed by many residents in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea — low-income, predominantly Latino fenceline communities that have long dealt with the effects of industrial pollution and development. The zip code that includes the two north Denver neighborhoods ranks as one of the most polluted in the country, and residents experience higher rates of asthma and other health effects than people in other parts of the city.

"This wouldn't be happening if it were Cherry Creek or Greenwood Village," said Winkel. "And you know that. You know why it's happening to us."

The issue of vibrations came up repeatedly during Thursday's meeting. Ava Farouche, an attorney for environmental group Earthjustice, called on officials to address the city's lack of an ordinance addressing construction vibration, which studies have shown poses health risks including stress, sleep loss and other effects.

"Noise and vibration are regulated together in other municipalities, because they are both generated by many of the same activities, and are widely acknowledged to have similar negative effects on human health," said Farouche, pointing to ordinances enacted by Greenwood Village and Parker as possible models. Boardmembers and department staff committed to exploring the issue going forward.

"I did appreciate the department saying that they could look into regulatory frameworks, look into opportunities to address vibrations," said Celia VanDerLoop, the board's vice chair. "That's a very important concern to the community."
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff