About seven miles north of downtown Denver, a menacing field of broken asphalt shards towers 30 feet over the street, marginally contained by a dilapidated fence less than a third of its height.
Welcome to shingle mountain.
That’s what area residents in this low-income community call the eyesore of a landmark, a recycling depository for old asphalt shingles that poses a serious health and environmental hazard to the neighborhood.
Neighbors worried about asbestos contamination notified the city when the pile appeared last June, but other than a fire safety warning, authorities left the recycler alone.
Now, almost a year later, the issue is making headlines thanks to a couple of law students and their professor Michael Harris at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
On behalf of residents and a local environmental group, student attorneys put the recycling business on notice: clean up or face a lawsuit.
Citing violations to the Clean Water Act, students argue that the recycling facility’s languishing pile of asphalt is not only a fire hazard, but a source of asbestos dust and other metals that can kick up into the air or, after a storm, runoff into the streets and the nearby Platte River.
“For Colorado, this is not shocking,” says Harris, director of DU’s Environmental Law Clinic. “Right after we saw the shingle pile, we saw a 40-foot pile of trash and a 30-foot pile of scrap metal.”
Even in an eco-conscious place like Denver?
“Environmentalism in Denver has always been about mountains,” not communities, Harris says. “One of the things I’ve learned about environmental justice is that without a watchdog organization, there’s little monitoring of low-income and minority neighborhoods.”
The students’ letter of intent to sue, filed in late April allows the recycler, Shingles 4 Recycling, 60 days to respond to allegations. To date, the recycler has issued no response.
Older asphalt, a popular roofing material in Colorado’s extreme weather for decades, often contains asbestos, a mineral that causes lung disorders and cancer. The Clean Air Act of 1970 regulated exposure to asbestos, which was phased out as a building material in the 1980s.