So, where does one hide a pile of old roofing shingles that can cover a football field and towers some 30 feet in height? If you are Denver-based Shingles 4 Recycling, you don’t have to hide such a mountain––not when you can place it in the north Denver, working-class neighborhood of Elyria.
Now, the recycling of used roof shingles is generally a good thing, and needs to be encouraged in Denver and elsewhere. Old shingles can be ground-up and substituted for crude oil components in the manufacturing of new asphalt products. And if properly managed, shingle recycling presents very few, if any, environmental concerns.
But when such recycling is not properly managed, you get a situation like Shingle Mountain. What we see here is, for local community members, quite an eyesore. But it is also a potential fire hazard and an environmental hazard. According to a joint EPA-industry report, [PDF] old asphalt shingles (particularly those manufactured before 1990) can contain both asbestos and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), many of which are considered to be hazardous.
The mis-handling of used shingles can result in these substances coming loose and getting into the air. On a rainy day, these hazardous pollutants can wash right off into the street and toward the Platte River, which is just 1,100 yards away. Even if those materials don't make it to the river they pose a threat. Chemicals and metals left behind on the street are kicked up into the air by passing vehicles and pose a serious health risk to local residents.
So, how did this pile come to be? Astonishingly, local residents have complained about this operation since the pile began to grow (and grow) over a year ago. Yes, local authorities have visited the site, and have asked the company to get the pile down to 10 feet, and to repair the surrounding fence. So far, that “request” has been ignored and the City has not taken decisive action.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (“CPDHE”) has also dropped the ball on this recycling debacle. Although the owner of the facility applied for an industrial storm water permit in the summer of 2010, the CPDHE did not issue a notice of deficiency until January 2011. And then the agency gave the facility until November 2011 to fix the problems with the permit (and, consequently the condition of the site).
Shingle Mountain, along with the response of regulators, is a classic example of environmental injustice. Certainly such a facility would not be allowed to operate in such manner in the more affluent parts of the City of Denver. Unfortunately, environmentalism in Denver has largely been about mountains, not our low-income communities. One of the things about environmental justice is that without a watchdog organization, there’s little monitoring of low-income and minority neighborhoods. That is certainly true in Colorado.
This truism is what led the two University of Denver Environmental Law Clinic students—Eric Wilson and Stephanie Fairbanks––to take on this injustice on behalf of the local residents. On April 22, 2011, the students served Shingles 4 Recycling with a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue under the federal Clean Water Act. For the residents of Elyria––like those who live in other environmentally disadvantaged communities throughout the west––filing a lawsuit is not any easy choice. There certainly is no desire to run business from the neighborhood, and the hope is that the owner will come into compliance within the 60-day notice window. But if the situation isn't addressed, Elyria residents realize the time has come to stop complaining to non-responsive regulators and to take the matter into their own hands.
Image caption: DU law students Stephanie Fairbanks (left) and Eric R. Wilson (center) discuss their concerns over a massive shingle pile with former-City Council candidate Juanita Gable (right), courtesy Michael Harris.
Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Michael is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, where he directs the school’s environmental law clinic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org