In a run-down neighborhood, there's lots of love
A Denver activist fights for her community
Executive director, Cross Community Coalition
Northeast Denver, Colorado
Fighting for social and environmental justice for the working-class people of ZIP code 80216
"We have this stupid — absolutely stupid — notion that someone has to win and someone has to lose. Until we all win, the environment loses."
In the northeast corner of Denver, in the dingy underbelly of the I-70 overpass, roughly 10,000 working-class residents — 83 percent of them Latino — live alongside two diesel trucking stations, two oil refineries, a battery plant, and the monstrous Purina dog-food factory.
It is by no means a beautiful neighborhood, but for Lorraine Granado, it has been home for most of her life. Four generations of her family live here, and she wants to create a healthier life for her three sons and grandchildren. "Look at all these wonderful opportunities to make it better," Granado says. "To make it better."
Granado, 57, is the founder and executive director of the Cross Community Coalition, a nonprofit organization that works for social and environmental justice in "ZIP code 80216" — Denver’s northeast neighborhoods. Because of a toxic combination of racial and economic prejudice, she says, industry and government officials pay scant attention to the health of this community. Granado has dedicated herself to changing that, and in the process founded and nurtured an array of vibrant community groups.
In 1994, Granado and other citizens filed a class-action lawsuit against the Globeville Asarco metals-smelting plant, a Superfund site just minutes west of Granado’s home. Nearby residents had endured more than a century of lead, arsenic trioxide and cadmium production, which had contaminated their air and soil.
After countless hours of legal negotiations and an ambitious public education effort, Granado and her group were victorious. In the largest environmental settlement ever awarded in Colorado at the time, Asarco spent more than $28 million on yard cleanups, reimbursements for decreased property values, and medical monitoring for Globeville residents.
Granado and her allies defended northeast Denver in an especially dramatic fashion seven years ago, when a leaky railroad tanker that was transporting hydrochloric acid for Vulcan Chemicals released a huge plume of deadly gas over the neighborhood.
Vulcan, which operates a terminal in northeast Denver, did not alert the community to the spill, nor did it provide information on the dangers of the gas, Granado says. Schools let out their students as usual without mentioning the problem, she adds, and firefighters didn’t arrive on the scene until five hours had passed. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured.
Granado spearheaded a mediation effort between a citizens’ group and Vulcan, and the company eventually offered a settlement that was even larger than they’d hoped: $200,000 for a new neighborhood park.
Most recently, Granado helped agitate for the cleanup of the Vasquez Boulevard/I-70 Superfund site, an area saturated with the residue of a century of lead and arsenic smelting. Due in part to the efforts of local citizens, the Environmental Protection Agency decided in 2003 to remove and replace the soil from approximately 850 individual properties in northeast Denver, and to test for lead poisoning in every resident child under the age of six.
"She was just a workhorse, and unwilling to give up," says area resident Anthony Thomas. "She’ll help us with whatever we need. Lorraine has always been there."
For her part, Granado says the 80216 community has supported her at every turn. "It’s always because there are other people of good faith and good will," she says. "I hope — I hope, I hope, I hope — that when I look back, I can say I contributed some by healing, teaching, creating awareness."
With the noise of the interstate just outside her window, in an office surrounded by a steady stream of brown Purina smog and flanked by a Muffler Extreme auto-body shop, she smiles, and says, "Sometimes I look at my life and think, how blessed am I?"
The author writes from Boulder, Colorado, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.