Community groups in north Denver have joined forces with the Sierra Club to file a federal lawsuit against the EPA, claiming that the agency lowered its pollution standards in order to push forward the controversial expansion of I-70 through the Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods.
The $1.8 billion project, which would replace a crumbling six-lane viaduct with a below-grade, partially covered superhighway expanded to ten lanes, has been a source of controversy and protest in neighborhoods flanking I-70 for years.
The Colorado Public Interest Research Group has called the project a boondoggle, and some activists have lobbied to reroute the highway altogether.
The Colorado Department of Transportation is also working with the City of Denver on stormwater drainage issues that could have impacts in communities well beyond the highway corridor; they're the subject of this week's feature.
The public-comment period for the project's final Environmental Impact Statement ended earlier this month. But the comments in court are just starting. Filed yesterday, the Sierra Club suit challenges the EPA finding that increased emissions from the expanded highway won't violate national air-quality standards.
The plaintiffs, who also include the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, Citizens for a Greater Denver and the Cross Community Coalition, contend that the project shouldn't be able to obtain federal funding because particulates from traffic on high pollution days violate established Clean Air Act requirements. But last November, the EPA issued new guidance in the case that eliminated multiple high pollution days from the analysis; as a result, the project was found in compliance with emission standards.
To folks in the crosshairs of the highway noise and air pollution, this is no idle bit of new math. A 2014 report from the Denver Department of Environmental Health found that Denver residents in areas adjacent to I-70 experience a 70 percent greater rate of mortality from heart diseases than residents elsewhere in the city.
"CDOT now has a golden opportunity to correct a half-century of harm done to Denver citizens," said Becky English of Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain Chapter in a prepared statement announcing the suit.
"We feel no other neighborhood in the City of Denver would have a project like this forced upon them," added Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association. "We have tried and failed to get our political leaders at all levels to listen to our concerns." Dutcher also describes the highway projects as using "1960s solutions for 21st Century problems" and as "toxic and destructive to our neighborhoods and quality of life."
CDOT officials maintain that the project will be a boon to the neighborhood and to transportation issues in the city. Here's a video touting the project.
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.