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What’s Environmental Justice Mean? Look at North Denver

A community movement in Denver puts longtime polluters on notice and wins new protections for residents.

Construction on the I-70 freeway expansion bumps up against homes in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods of North Denver.
Construction on the I-70 freeway expansion bumps up against homes in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods of North Denver. (Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice)

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When Ean Thomas Tafoya first heard about yet another polluting project coming to North Denver, he knew it was time for action.

This was about a decade ago, when he served as a staffer for Denver’s city council and learned about a proposal to expand Interstate 70. The plans were just lines on a map at that time, but he understood things not included in any official legend.

The benefits of the road were aimed at the suburbs, but the impacts would be terrible in North Denver, including his mother’s neighborhood. The project would increase vehicle pollution, while kicking up lead and arsenic dust from surrounding Superfund sites. At least 56 homes and 13 commercial buildings would be demolished. Approximately 200 people would be forced to move.

The highway would be rerouted underground. Tafoya knew the water table near his mother’s home was high and existing flooding problems would worsen.

While the city prepared by creating a ditch and a levee, “they basically built the levee in front of the highway to protect it and industry. But nothing for my mom’s house,” says Tafoya.

Tafoya recognized there was history here, and it was repeating. His mother’s neighborhood wasn’t just any other neighborhood in Denver. The residents are predominantly Latinx and the burden of pollution past and present far outpaces other parts of Denver — in fact, it has been determined by some to be the most polluted ZIP code in America.

The residents of North Denver had had enough. Resistance to the I-70 project marked the beginning of not just one community fight, but a broad environmental justice movement backed by Earthjustice legal representation. The movement would put longtime polluters on notice and win new protections for residents.

And it would get the state to name what was going on here with a one-of-a-kind environmental justice bill. The bill, which became a law last summer, addresses the impacts of environmental racism by defining what constitutes a “disproportionately impacted community” so that the damage can be stopped and the benefits can begin.

The History

Feelings remain raw from when I-70 was first built in the 1960s. It sliced through North Denver, forcing hundreds of homes to be demolished. The North Denver communities — Globeville and Elyria-Swansea — faced a similar dynamic to that of communities of color around the country that were broken apart to make way for interstate highways.

Decades of other siting decisions have added more pollution to North Denver, harming public health. Major contributors include the Suncor Refinery, the Cherokee power plant, the Purina pet food factory, rail traffic, multiple highways, and two Superfund sites.

Residents have significantly higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and asthma than people in the rest of the city. Asthma hospitalization rates are 40% higher for children living near the highway than they are in the rest of the city. And North Denver residents die of heart disease at a rate 13% higher than the rest of the city.

“For years, this is where they poured [the pollution] in,” says Tafoya, adding that North Denver was the only area in the city with zoning that allowed for major polluting industries amidst residences. “It was going on at a time that it was a Latino community predominantly.”

Showing Up

Tafoya was among the neighborhood activists and groups that banded together to confront the I-70 expansion with a lawsuit. The groups included the Colorado Latino Forum, Cross Community Coalition, and the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association. Earthjustice served as their lawyers.

Former Earthjustice attorney Joel Minor filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation over the I-70 expansion. The complaint argued that the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) discriminated against Globeville and Elyria-Swansea and placed a disproportionate burden on a majority Latinx community by failing to consider alternatives.

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, it is illegal for an agency to receive federal money and discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Discrimination need not be intentional and involves any decision that has an unjustified unequal impact on a protected group.

After the civil rights complaint, Earthjustice filed a federal lawsuit in 2017 to halt the I-70 project because the construction and traffic would violate air quality standards.

Earthjustice’s clients did not win the case, but it pushed CDOT to address community concerns. Both parties agreed to a settlement that included conducting a study on the health effects of I-70 and rail traffic. Air monitors would be used to collect data on particulate matter during construction. The settlement also included $25,000 for tree planting.

After the settlement, community members wanted to address construction noise through a city ordinance. Community members were well aware that wealthier, whiter areas of the city received more sound protection, including the erecting of sound walls when I-25 expanded.

“The community showed up in a way that blew local officials away,” says Ava Farouche, a paralegal and data analyst at Earthjustice, who worked closely with Minor. “We got the city to implement safeguards for the community that they never would have.”

After this effort, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment began holding monthly meetings in North Denver. Community members who show up to provide input now receive a $45 stipend after residents pointed out that regulatory staffers who attend are compensated through their salaries.

An Earthjustice Journey

Denver is home to Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office. Traditionally, the office focused on public lands and species protection. The I-70 work marked the first case for Earthjustice that tackled pollution within Denver communities.

Managing attorney Heidi McIntosh describes the transition to environmental justice work in North Denver as a journey that required a lot of learning. Her office reached out to other Earthjustice staff to tap in-house expertise in toxics, refinery permitting, and health-related work.

Building trust and long-lasting relationships was just as critical. That required learning how to avoid raising community expectations beyond what the office could deliver.

Another key piece: bringing aboard someone with relationships in the state legislature. In 2019, McIntosh hired Becca Curry, who had worked for the ACLU, to serve as Colorado Policy Counsel.

Farouche, meanwhile, continued to devote time to researching and mapping health disparities — and making personal connections.

“Earthjustice has been a wonderful partner with the local community in helping them guide where we want to go,” says Tafoya.

Polluters Put on Notice

After grappling with I-70, Earthjustice organized a summit to hear what environmental issues most concerned the community. The focus turned to Suncor, the refinery that was violating its air permit limits.

“Suncor was a big issue. We were hearing: ‘We’re sick of this,’” Farouche recounts.

Suncor pollutes North Denver air with hydrogen cyanide, which interferes with the body’s use of oxygen and can harm organs. Suncor also spews benzene, which can cause leukemia from long-term exposure.

In addition to air pollution, Suncor also dumps chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that have been linked to cancer into groundwater, which flows in Sand Creek and the South Platte River. During malfunctions, the refinery has spewed yellow and orange ash into the air forcing school lockdowns. Suncor hasn’t identified these substances.

New Laws Bring Change

Last summer, Earthjustice worked in coalition to pass legislation to address pollution from Suncor and other permit violators. House Bill 1189, passed in June, requires real-time air pollution monitoring at facility fence-lines where pollution is most intense. Now, these facilities must notify the public during malfunctions and pollution spikes.

HB21-1266, passed in July, created an environmental justice ombudsman and a task force to develop an environmental justice plan for the state.

Crucially, this law also set up a fund generated by penalties on fossil-fuel companies that violate air quality laws. Instead of these fines going into state coffers, an advisory board will award grants to communities that suffered the harm. An estimated $8 million could be generated annually from penalties, according to Curry, who helped draft the bill’s language.

The environmental justice law is unlike any other in Colorado in that it names and defines environmental and structural racism in state law. The definitions are quantifiable and specific, applying to neighborhoods that have experienced “a history of environmental racism, perpetuated through redlining, anti-Indigenous, anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, or anti-Black laws.”

This specificity was important to ensure the benefits of environmental legislation can be properly directed. That didn’t happen in 2019, when Colorado passed greenhouse gas cuts that prioritized “disproportionately impacted communities” but failed to describe what that meant.

“There is now a clear set of communities in which to prioritize reductions and benefits,” says Curry.

The battle to include this language in the bill was intense.

“There are white legislators who are like: ‘Oh, this makes me feel uncomfortable. Can we just not do this?’ And we had to fight them,” says Tafoya.

He and other activists went on an 11-city tour to apply public pressure, helping secure passage of the law.

While significant achievements have been made in bringing those most impacted by environmental injustice into state decision-making, more changes are needed.

Tafoya, who was recently elected to serve as co-chair of the Environmental Justice Action Task Force, is focused on what’s next.

“Healthy and affordable housing and transportation options are the future, along with restorative and regenerative projects to heal the land,” he says, adding: “and leadership [from those] with lived experience.”

Based in Washington, D.C., Keith is the National Communications Strategist for Partnerships and Intersectional Justice.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office protects the region’s iconic public lands, wildlife species, and precious water resources; defends Tribes and disparately impacted communities fighting to live in a healthy environment; and works to accelerate the region’s transition to 100% clean energy.