Things to watch in Denver’s environmental scene

Environment with Ean

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Welcome to my second edition of Environment with Ean. For those just joining us, the intent of this column is to highlight policies or planning processes that you can engage with in a timely manner.

Let’s start with some updates:

The Jared Polis administration released the governor’s 2020 budget requests, and they include more staff for the Air Pollution Control Division. According to the Colorado Independent, the proposal adds $2.4 million to the current $24 million budget, which will allow the hiring of 19 new employees, including 10 inspectors focused on compliance to improve air quality. For those who haven’t been following along, the Front Range may be headed into Serious Nonattainment status with the Environmental Protection Agency for ground level ozone. Ozone is particularly harmful for youths, the elderly and those with respiratory issues. Public hearings were held in September and the community is still awaiting the decision.

The Denver Climate Stakeholders application is closed, and the word on the street is that many applied. Gratitude to all those who are willing to join the policy work weekly for the next six months. The Denver City Council passed CB19-1177, which officially creates a cabinet-level Office of Climate Change and Resiliency. Advocates wanted a new office created because they believe that having the office a few layers into the Department of Public Health and Environment didn’t give it the autonomy and resources that we collectively need to lead globally to curb and prepare for the climate emergency. Both the stakeholders group and the office are part of compromise between city council and the mayor regarding a pollution excise tax being delayed from the most recent election.

Things that you can engage with today:

As I said last month, this is an emergency and it will require an unprecedented effort to to take action on it. Climate Mobilization, a national group with local chapters here in Colorado, is working to get all levels of government to declare a climate emergency, in an effort to access the capital needed to make the rapid change. Here in Colorado, Fort Collins has already declared an emergency and U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Joe Neguse have signed onto a declaration for Congress. There is a local effort here in Denver and they are asking for residents to contact the mayor and city council asking for them to declare a climate emergency. For more information, visit https://climateemergency.us/

Traffic emissions play a huge role in our greenhouse emissions and in our degraded air quality. Many thousands of vehicle trips flow through Denver each day, and many of those do not originate nor end in Denver, yet their emissions pollute just the same. Interstate 25 is currently undergoing a Planning and Environmental Linkage (PEL) Study, and your input is being taken by the Colorado Department of Transportation now. The PEL study is a precursor study to identify environmental impacts of projects before entering into the federal required analysis known as the Environmental Impact Statement of a proposed project under the National Environmental Policy Act. On the table: a new alignment, double decking, improved transit, new bridges and interchanges. Not on the table: the removal of the highway in favor of a boulevard or a parkway.

Vehicle emissions account for a significant part of air quality pollution in the region. According to CDOT counts, the section of I-25 from Santa Fe Drive to 20th Avenue has the highest daily average traffic counts in the state at 272,000 vehicles per day. CDOT has hosted four stakeholders focus group meetings and one public open house. This open house had about 55 attendees according to the meeting summary, including many members of the focus group. At the time of the open house, CDOT reported receiving roughly 700 comments and survey completions. According to the CDOT summary, a majority of respondents at the open house rejected highway widening as a preferred solution. The recently approved Mile High Stadium and Auraria plans by the city council call for many more residents to be added smack dab in the middle of this corridor. With the price tags of billions for large urban highway widening, this is no small matter.

I am left with many questions. What is an adequate level of community engagement for advancing a project of this size? Is it a percentage of the surrounding area or of the vehicle trips taken there each day? What are the climate impacts of widening? Think of all that concrete, plus the diesel fuel it will take to construct. What are the short- and long-term air quality impacts of construction and finished highway traffic counts? Think about the children playing on the new playground at the Denver Children’s Museum, that close to the highest traffic counts in state. Can urban highway corridors and density coexist given the current science on the impacts of pollution on the health of nearby residents? Let your opinions be heard.

Have you heard of PFAS? PFAS are known as per- and polyfluoralkyl substances. Since the 1940s, more than 5,000 chemicals have been created and are in a wide variety of products including food packaging, carpet and firefighting foams. These chemicals contaminate groundwater and accumulate in organisms, including you and me. PFAS have been identified at the federal and state level as an emerging public health threat. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has detected PFAS in the water in the towns of Security, Widefield, Fountain, Commerce City and two fire districts near Boulder. In response, CPDHE has created a PFAS Narrative Policy Work Group to examine new policy to protect the public health of Colorado residents. To date, they have met twice and have released a draft policy for review by the public.

I touched on a few things that you can engage with in between holiday shopping. But what I really want to know is if you are you ready for the Colorado legislative session? Last year 22 bills related to the environment were passed by the Legislature. In the new year, I will be profiling some of the introduced legislation that you can engage with early in the 2020 legislative session.

Ean Thomas Tafoya is a climate and government activist. he can be reached at @BelieveEan on Twitter.

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