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An artist's rendering of the Interstate 70 expansion project, which will widen a 10-mile stretch of the highway in northeast Denver. (POITRA/CDOT)

Residents of Denver’s three most polluted neighborhoods couldn’t block an expansion of Interstate 70 that forced some from their homes. But as a result of their federal lawsuit, the state has agreed to a long-term health study to find out whether toxins in the air and soil are making them sick.

As part of a settlement announced Thursday, the Colorado Department of Transportation will pay for a long-term health study for the citizens of Swansea, Elyria and Globeville. The three northeast Denver neighborhoods exist in the shadow of a refinery, a dog chow plant and other industry that residents for decades have blamed for their health problems.

An independent expert will conduct the study, overseen by plaintiffs in the lawsuit — the Sierra Club, the Colorado Latino Forum, the Chaffee Park Neighborhood Association and the Elyria Swansea Neighborhood Association. They were represented by attorneys from Earthjustice, who sued to stop the I-70 project in July 2017.

A 2014 city health study determined the three neighborhoods have higher rates of heart disease, asthma and diabetes, compared with other Denver neighborhoods.

Drew Dutcher, who lives three blocks from the highway, said the settlement will help upcoming generations of residents and give “future leaders the information they need to make better decisions.”

“We’ve known something is wrong, and we’ve known for a long time,” he said. “We are trying to get to the bottom of this.”

Besides the industrial pollution, the neighborhoods are a pass-through for diesel trains. And residents worry about air pollution generated by the tens of thousands of vehicles zooming down I-70. Part of the area is a Superfund site, and years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency removed top soil from numerous homes because it was contaminated by smelter pollution.

Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, said several of his neighbors died from cancer, and he said his 5-year-old neighbor has asthma.

“This is not the outcome that we sought,” he said. “But there are some positive things for the residents. We are getting trees. We are getting additional monitoring. We’re getting a health assessment.”

The highway expansion project broke ground in August, after paying some residents to give up their homes.

CDOT’s Stacia Sellers, communications manager for the Central I-70 project, said the department was “excited to come to this conclusion” and settle the last remaining legal challenge to the project. The department, she said, worked with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office to reach the settlement.

“This has been a long-time coming,” she said.

The settlement costs for CDOT are $550,000 for the health study, plus $25,000 in landscaping.

The 1.2 billion I-70 expansion, expected to take four years, will widen a 10-mile stretch of highway in northeast Denver.

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    Jennifer Brown

    Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...