North Denver Neighbors Sound Off on CDOT I-70 Expansion as Federal Court Case Ramps Up

Pollution from the freeway is literally sickening, and Denverites don't want their health to suffer even more.

Mary Hernandez attributes her family's health problems to pollution from I-70. Photo: David Sachs
Mary Hernandez attributes her family's health problems to pollution from I-70. Photo: David Sachs

Pollution from I-70 is already too much of a health hazard, residents of Elyria, Swansea, and Globeville told reporters today, and they don’t want the Colorado Department of Transportation’s highway widening to make the problem even worse.

CDOT plans to rebuild this elevated stretch of I-70 as a wider, sunken highway. With four more lanes and triple the current footprint, the expanded I-70 would bring more traffic and pollution through north Denver.

“That means a lot more of these particles in the air that are gonna be hurting us,” said Davita Sanchez, a 15-year resident of the neighborhood.

Sanchez, along with her three children, suffer from asthma, but she didn’t until she moved to the neighborhood.

Residents like Sanchez are fighting the highway expansion in federal court. On Wednesday, attorneys representing neighborhood groups and the Sierra Club presented their argument that CDOT has failed to accurately convey the effects of a wider highway on public health.

These neighborhoods are already among the most polluted in the city, with the highest rates of chronic disease. “I was living here when the first I-70 was built,” said Mary Hernandez, whose family has a long list of ailments that she attributes to freeway pollution. “I can say it destroyed a lot of people’s lives.”

Colorado Latino Forum Director Ean Tafoya called the I-70 expansion “our Flint, Michigan.”

“This is the woeful disregard by the government of people who live in neighborhoods who they represent,” he said.

Yesterday, attorney Bob Yuhnke argued at a federal courthouse that CDOT failed to fully account for the environmental health hazards created by more traffic and the construction of the highway itself, which he said will require moving 3.9 million cubic yards of dirt and debris. The entire amount of pollution that CDOT projected the highway to create by 2040 could in fact be generated by just the construction phase, Yuhnke said.

He wants the judge to allow more robust air quality modeling, performed independently of CDOT, to be considered in the case. At issue is CDOT’s failure to fully vet the risk of fine particulates known as PM 2.5. This type of pollution, 30 times smaller than the average human hair, is directly linked to asthma and cardiovascular disease, which north Denver residents already experience at high rates.

CDOT’s record of decision says the department was not under an obligation to address PM 2.5 pollution beyond a cursory examination. Yuhnke says otherwise, pointing to an independent analysis that found the I-70 project would put Denver out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. Unlike CDOT’s model, the analysis modeled where the PM 2.5 would go once it leaves the highway, and how it will interact with pollutants from other sources.

“It’s already been happening as a result of 50 years of exposure to this pollution,” Yuhnke said. “But the pollution will be worse — that much we know. But what they don’t account for is how many more funerals you all are gonna have to go to. And that should be known and should be revealed so this can be part of the public discussion about what needs to be done in this neighborhood.”

  • beckyrep

    It’s morally wrong and corrupt to the hilt, how these neighborhoods have been converted to sacrifice zones. Shame on our public agencies for plowing ahead on such a gargantuan project — which doesn’t add any new lanes for commonfolk, just tolled ‘Lexus Lanes’ — at the further expense to the health of Denver’s most vulnerable, who just happen to be lower income people of color.

    • TakeFive

      In the event the court decision does not go your way you can take solace knowing that in Phoenix where they’ve had the identical below-grade, 10-lane, I-10 freeway with a nice deck-park, it is so awful that on the south side of Margaret T. Hance Park the new high-end condos and townhomes are selling like hotcakes on a hot summer day. Even the homeless who hang in the park and the nearby Burton Barr Central Library haven’t stop the gentrification.

  • dr. val flores for state Board

    Teaching at Garden Place Academy years ago, I noticed that I had several young children who suffered from chronic breathing problems – more than I had ever noticed at other schools where I had taught before.

  • dr. val flores for state Board

    Why must our Denver Citizens suffer and die from this toxic problem being foisted
    on them by CDOT, who was not responsible enough to have done the research
    on how this I-70 expansion will cause further fatalities to the children and families
    living in these communities?

    • TakeFive

      You’ve had your ‘day in court’ so now it’s up to da judge.

  • Hugh Shepard

    I agree that the freeway is not a good idea, but still I think that there is not enough evidence to say that all of these health problems are only caused by air pollution.

    • Bridget walsh

      what would it take to convince you… your own child gasping for air? i stood by I 70 for an hour and was chocking as i drove home. go sit by the highway for 8 hours and then tell me that you need more evidence.

      • Hugh Shepard

        I am convinced that the freeway has to do with the increased rates of asthma and chronic diseases affecting these neighborhoods. However, you can never be sure that your personal medical condition is directly caused by the freeway.

        Take this statement for instance: whose family has a long list of ailments that she attributes to freeway pollution. “I can say it destroyed a lot of people’s lives.” Now, without going into the scientific research that shows that the particular ailments that she and her family suffered are caused by air pollution, the article loses its credibility.

        I agree that the freeway has to do with all these medical issues, but the way to show people that is through statistics, evidence, and science. Getting people to list the medical issues that they and their family have suffered from, and then blame them all on the freeway doesn’t show that the freeway is the problem.

        • beckyrep

          That is precisely what the attorney asked for in US Dustrict Court last Wednesday. During the EIS process, plaintiffs and others asked CDOT for scientific research and precise mathematical simulation modeling so that the proposed ‘preferred alternative’ could be properly evaluated. The agency refused to provide. FHWA didn’t perform the requested analysis either, but still approved the project for tapping into US Treasury taxpayer funds, go figure. So Sierra Club and plaintiffs hired their own experts to provide the studies. The lead attorney, Bob Yuhnke, simply requested that these studies be allowed as part of the case record. See Denver Post page 1 story of last Thurs or Friday.

    • Bridget walsh
    • beckyrep

      Some of the human misery in the GES neighborhoods is from the toxicity in the soils and groundwater – legacies of the past smelters and refineries in the area. That’s what the area’s Superfund designations are about; residents should ‘ remediate’ to the fullest extent possible under EPA regulations. Residents get the triple wammy: bad air, soils, and groundwater — all together these 3 create a causal cocktail of pollution that’s enormously damaging for their bodies to deal with at any given moment, not to mention the cumulative effects over time. It’s no wonder they have sky-high asthma rates, high counts of missed school & work days due to illness & hospitalizations, and an average of 3 years of lost life per person in the area! This is very much like the callous disregard for human health that’s gone on in Flint Michigan.

  • Anonymous Bike Zealot

    There was a beautifully elegant parkway proposal as an alternative to this monstrosity that has been posted out on YouTube for a couple of years, but Denver being Denver (all image, no substance when it comes to the well being of people…particularly those of color or those who can’t afford to buy city hall) it was never seriously considered by TPTB. What a shame. If I was in this neighborhood, I’d leave. Denver is basically unlivable and will only get worse in the years to come.