A Conversation with Candi CdeBaca about Building Political Power around Issues of Environmental Justice

Water Education Colorado has been taking a close look at environmental justice and equity through the development of equity principles, adopted by the board in January 2020, and through programming, including the spring 2020 issue of Headwaters magazine which focuses on equity and environmental justice in water. To accompany the magazine, we sat down with some Colorado leaders to chat about the topic. For this post in a series of Q&As on environmental justice, we spoke with Candi CdeBaca, who represents northeast Denver’s District 9 on Denver City Council. Here’s what she had to say:

We were excited to talk with you not just because of your political work on justice but also simply because of your district and home … can you tell me anything about the largest environmental challenges in District 9?

It’s kind of what catalyzed my race and the office that I hold. We live in a Superfund site, in the most polluted zip code in America, and I was activated politically because I lived three blocks away from a very large highway expansion here in Colorado. This project is the most expensive infrastructure in Colorado’s history, but I was engaged primarily because I was concerned with losing my home to eminent domain. So the environmental concerns were secondary, but when I got really involved with the issue I learned not only that we live in the most polluted zip code in America but that my family had been one of the original families to file a lawsuit against a smelter that triggered the identification of the Superfund site and the subsequent cleanup. I was a first-generation high school graduate and I didn’t really understand what environmental racism was and I didn’t really have other communities to compare my community with. So, when I moved out of Denver the first time to go to college and then later on for my professional path, what I recognized was that it wasn’t normal what I endured in my community. It wasn’t normal to really know as many people as I know who have died from cancer and that had these consequences that were directly correlated to living in a contaminated area. That activated me to not only pay attention to the issues surrounding the environment and environmental racism, but also how the built environment was shaped in a very inequitable way that actually perpetuates inequity.

Since becoming a councilwoman in this district (Candi Cdebaca was sworn into office in July 2019), many things have happened. We were briefed early in my tenure about a lead abatement program and what I found was information about major lead issues in my neighborhood associated with water. So they were trying to do some abatement, but it was really frustrating because we were trying to track down neighbors to really address the lead issue, but the way the process is set up it is really intrusive to even get an analysis of whether your qualify to get the abatement. It has been interesting to watch the process and how people are resistant or unable to engage in the process knowing that there are issues of life, death, and learning disability consequences to having poisoned water.

My neighborhood is on the line, and the adjacent county is Adams county, right on the other side of the county line is an oil refinery. Denver has had significant indirect and direct consequences of living next to Suncor because Suncor is not in our county, so we rely predominantly on CDPHE to act as our eyes and ears. CDPHE has in many ways actually failed and has continued to grant permits to Suncor to pollute beyond the authorized limits. Even this week a news article has come out about Suncor because neighbors had found a powder, and there was some sort of explosion which caused a spewing of a powdery substance into the surrounding areas. Its been interesting because we don’t know what is going into the water, we don’t know what’s going into the air, and Denver has no real ability to find out, and CDPHE doesn’t want to do much to figure it out.

We spoke with someone with the Colorado People’s Alliance who said that people in your district can’t drink the water coming out of the tap. Is it an issue of aging infrastructure or is it an issue with pollutants?

With the programs, what we are hearing is that it is aging infrastructure and they blame the infrastructure on the private property owners. For us, Colorado People’s Alliance is incredible, for my race they endorsed and supported me externally, they are one of the only organizations seeking to amplify this work because our state is seen as this healthy vibrant place to live, but the reality of our environmental issues is not being communicated to the world or even the broader community. We are not doing a good job on any level.

Then taking a step back, can you tell me a bit about the work you do in District 9 and how it connects you with justice … particularly environmental justice?

That first fight that snowballed into my political race was a fight against the highway expansion. We actually ended up suing the State Highway Administration, the state, and the city because we were not only frustrated by the alternatives that we got but also were concerned about the environmental implications of digging in a capped off superfund site in a residential area. We had multiple superfund sites in the zip code and they were all categorized differently based upon the land use of the time. The land use of the time was often industrial rather than residential. Swansea fits into the new neighborhood that they call ‘Rino’ and in that area what they are doing, land use is changing, and they are taking a lot of industrial warehouses and turning them into livable residential areas. We changed the land use, but we never changed the standards for scrutiny with the environmental stuff. So, we have a changing context of land use that outpaced the ability to understand and now do contamination implications. In the middle of our residential operable units, there was a highway, and because the highway was paved over with asphalt, they didn’t consider it a concern because there wasn’t exposure that warranted concern. But now that is being dug up to expand the highway, and now you have homes closer to the highway than any other place in the state. In fact, in California, it is illegal to have a highway within 500 feet of schools and residences, and here in Denver, you could jump off the highway and hit someone’s roof. All of this was ignored for a so-called ‘preferred alternative’ that really was not preferred by anyone but the multinational corporations making money off of it. Those losses were the first start of me galvanizing some community power around environmental racism and we pivoted pretty easily into the election, but now we have this amplification of groups who never had representation in our government from the neighborhoods that were polluted. I am literally the first person from our neighborhoods to represent on our city council—ever. To never have representation, to have never had a registered neighborhood association, that is really a travesty. The part that I haven’t mentioned is that we are a [predominantly] Latino neighborhood, historically an immigrant community, predominantly a low-income community, which is were you find superfund sites.

Any tips or strategies that you would give people looking to become more politically active or reach their city councilperson or other representatives around this issue in their own communities?

It is all about building power through community organizing. For me, as a social worker that is coming from community organizing, there is nothing that I support more than activating people power. It is because when you don’t do that, or when you get into these spaces that I am in, it is easy for my colleagues to say that “the pollution issues are not of a local concern, those are not something that is within our jurisdiction. Those are things in the purview of our state department of health or within the federal guidelines.” So, it is easy for my colleagues to kick the issue down the road rather than actually solving it. When you build enough demand in a city, local government and city government can’t ignore it. Then you have something to work with. If you are just complaining about an issue of pollution, or noise, or smoke, or odor pollution, then it is hard to activate others to stand behind you because the issue is so easily pushed off on someone else. It is always someone else who will never deal with the issue because they will simply push it off on someone else. It is all about building up demand for an issue on the ground.

What are some of the changes you have seen as a result of your work in Colorado?

Having been in office for only four months, I feel like we’ve been able to realize more impacts than expected. We had a major win in our first month. I had been in office maybe two or three weeks before leading this crusade against private prisons and we forced the city to divest in private prisons, who also run our immigration detention camps in our neighboring cities. That made national news because people are not aware of the way in which cities play into the private prison industrial complex. Most people think that is federal or state prisons and is something that regular people in cities think that they have any power to change. So, the awareness that was created in that first month I think has been exponentialized in my last five months because with the ability to do that within the first month, primarily based on the community power that we were able to build. I take no credit for that; it was really about the community members who showed up to testify that evening to compel my colleagues to vote ‘no’ against those contracts. That community power translated into action or an outcome that was unprecedented, and so, being able to have that huge win right out of the gate has colored my tenure in this office in a way that makes people pay attention. If they were paying attention to that issue then when we bring an environmental issue to the table, or about the budget, or about our seniors, then they are now paying attention because of the initial issue that they cared about. I think that our accomplishment in this short time has really been about raising awareness about what we have power over. It has also increased the demand for transparency and accountability in a way that we have never seen before.

In District 9, or maybe Denver as a whole, are there any relevant changes you would you like to see moving into the future?

Absolutely. Denver has been able to brush off their responsibilities or shrug off their responsibilities to the residents when it comes to the environment because we are a local government. I think that now we are raising awareness about accountability, transparency and our real power, people are recognizing that Denver as a city has probably more power than anywhere else in the state. Our mayor is, in reality, more powerful than the governor of our state, and so, when you think about it in that way, in that context, you start to understand how influence works. We are starting to demand that Denver take a leadership role in our environment, so for me, my biggest desire for the city of Denver is that we and the body of local government take leadership over the environment across the state of Colorado. We need to drive what happens statewide through leadership. We are willing to do it in areas that generate profit, such as the legalization of marijuana, but we haven’t been as willing to do it in ways that are more of a liability to our elected officials. The reality of our local government right now is that our mayor, as a Democrat, is super tight with oil and gas and he’s all about fracking and supporting fracking in all sorts of different ways even if it not happening in Denver. The goal is to really shine a light on those relationships that help people understand how these relationships work and that we can take a stand to protect the rest of the state.