Due to the increasing complexities of environmental programs, getting a permit, completing a study, or meeting a regulatory standard is not always quick or easy. Even once all the boxes have been checked, the permit has been issued, and approval has been granted, the challenges might just be getting started. Federal and state environmental programs contain mechanisms for interested parties to challenge decisions made by the regulatory agency. These mechanisms rightly provide checks and balances to ensure that the rules are followed and environmental impact is minimized. However, different parties can have different ideas about how to define environmental impact and the point at which it becomes unacceptable.

 A proposed $1.2 billion expansion of Interstate 70 through northeast Denver illustrates just how difficult navigating the environmental landscape can be. The project clearly illustrates, from an environmental standpoint, all the different approaches that can be used to delay or even derail a project.

  • The most recent claim, backed up with a lawsuit from the Sierra Club, is that the expanded highway would violate federal air quality standards. New Clean Air Act guidelines allow multiple high pollution days to not be counted against the air quality standard. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is using those new standards to show that increased emissions from the expanded interstate will not violate national air quality standards. However, the lawsuit challenges both the new Clean Air Act guidelines and CDOT’s conclusions. Multiple federal agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration, the EPA, and previous EPA administrator Gina McCarthy have been named as defendants in lawsuits.
  • A second claim is that, in order to avoid project delays, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) failed to consider all of the project’s stormwater drainage needs. A separate ongoing project in the area will also have a significant impact on stormwater drainage. Opponents claim that the combined effects of these two projects were not considered. However, officials maintain that CDOT has planned an independent drainage system of pipes and retention ponds for the highway project.
  • The Vasquez Boulevard/I-70 Superfund site will be disturbed. Work at this site requires the excavation of potentially contaminated materials, including asbestos, arsenic and lead contaminated soils, and landfill debris. The Superfund site was once home to a smelter and a landfill. Opponents claim that the disturbance of contaminated soils will pollute nearby waterways, while officials report that they are taking precautions to avoid spreading contaminants to surrounding areas.
  • Fifteen years of review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has given regulators confidence that the project will stand up to legal scrutiny. In fact, the project was given federal approval by the Federal Highway Administration in January 2017. However, local residents and activists feel like they are not getting the full story or all the answers. Therefore, a local neighborhood association has received a $5,000 grant to pay for research, community outreach, and monitoring to ensure that residents stay informed.
  • Environmental justice issues identified in a recent lawsuit claim that nearby lower-income and majority-Latino neighborhoods will be negatively affected. The president of a local neighborhood association has stated that, due to pollution from the highway, area residents “have suffered debilitating diseases, died of pollution-related causes, or moved away”. Opponents of the project believe that expansion of highway will exacerbate these issues. However, city officials report that they are going above and beyond what is required to make sure that public health is protected.
  • The project would replace a crumbling 1.8-mile viaduct with a below-grade highway. The below grade highway would be covered in part by a 4-acre parkland cap located next to an elementary school. Opponents claim that CDOT failed to adequately consider an alternative plan that would remove I-70 through northeast Denver, rerouting the traffic along interstates 270 and 76 to the north. However, the overall impact from this project would seemingly be minimized because the interstate already exists at the location in question.

The key takeaway is that, even when all the boxes are checked, mechanisms are in place for interested parties to use environmental concerns to delay or even derail projects. The expansion of a major interstate through Denver is a high-profile project that has likely received more attention than most. However, these mechanisms are available and can be used for both high-profile and low-profile projects.

William Shane is an Environmental Engineer at Smith Management Group. William can be reached at williams@smithmanage.com.