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Colorado invests more in communities finding solutions to pollution

Environmental justice grants awarded to community groups will support everything from urban gardens to water quality improvements and emissions reductions
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Posted at 10:19 AM, Jul 06, 2024

DENVER — Crunchy brown grass overtaken by weeds. Rusted out chain link fences. Dilapidated dugouts. That’s what’s left behind in an old baseball field in north Denver.

But James Grevious has a vision for transforming this barren land in the city into an urban oasis.

“We want to be able to invite people in and actually have a sense of calmness and peace and serenity, if you will, around food and trees and folks,” he said.

Soon, his vision will be a reality, with help from the state.

Dug out
Urban Symbiosis will transform this abandoned baseball field into a lush urban farm, using support from Colorado's new environmental justice grants.

Colorado communities hit hardest by environmental harms are getting new investments through government grants aimed at empowering residents to make their spaces healthier to live in.

Starting this week, eight groups across the state, including the nonprofit run by Grevious, will begin receiving support from Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

Colorado created these environmental justice grants in 2022 when state lawmakers decided to take money collected through fines and penalties against air pollution violators and pay it directly to affected communities working on solutions.

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In the past, the money collected through air pollution penalties and fines went into Colorado’s general fund to pay for overall government operations. But starting in 2022, Colorado lawmakers set up a “community impact cash fund” so that a portion of that money could start going to communities.

Colorado has collected more than $17 million total through air penalties and fines since 2022, according to data provided by the CDPHE.

A breakdown of those funds by year shows Colorado is collecting more as time goes on. So far in 2024, Colorado has collected more than $10 million, compared to just under $5 million in 2023 and $1.8 million in 2022.

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Over time, a larger portion of those funds will go into the community impact cash fund, starting with 20% in 2022 and growing to 100% by 2026.

Because of this model, out of the $17 million collected so far, roughly $6.5 million has gone into the new fund. Each year, CDPHE’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board awards some of that money to community groups.

This year, eight groups will split a total of $1.1 million for projects ranging from urban gardens to water quality improvements, air emissions reductions, new waste management practices and educational programs.

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The Green House Connection Center is the first group to receive the grant two years in a row. Their nonprofit is located in Denver's Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, near the industrial hub of Commerce City and the Suncor oil refinery. It's one of the most polluted areas in the country.

The Green House used just over $67,000 last year to host educational events for the community. Now, they're getting another $143,000 for 2024.

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For Grevious, who runs the urban agriculture nonprofits Rebels in the Garden and Urban Symbiosis, the state support will make a massive project possible.

On a plot of land in Denver, his group plans to launch an urban farm schoolhouse, where they’ll develop future urban farmers, alongside a small-scale farmers market, fruit trees, a worm farm, compost bins, vegetable gardens and “agrotherapy” for children recovering from traumas.

Urban Symbiosis farm
Urban Symbiosis created a rough sketch of what they'd like to do with this plot of land. Now that Colorado awarded them an environmental justice grant they'll bring together more community members to come up with a final plan.

It’s a lot to accomplish in a year — the timeline set by Colorado’s environmental justice grant program. But Grevious said it’s achievable. In the long term, Urban Symbiosis will use the space as a hub for its urban agriculture mission.

“It's not solely just growing tomatoes and cucumbers,” he said. “We're going into bigger and better things to feed our community.”

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Grevious said the state support will help bring justice to the community by revitalizing the land.

"Everything originates from the soil,” he said. “Restoring it to a regenerative urban agriculture, where it can sequester carbon... grow healthy food for the community, retain water... that is kind of what environmental justice means to us.”

And healing the land also means healing the people.

Cecilia Mayer
Cecilia Mayer hopes this new urban farm can bring together diverse communities around a common goal: growing and eating healthy food.

“What you put in your body, that affects your health,” said Cecilia Mayer, who works with Urban Symbiosis.

Urban gardening can help communities gain the “confidence that we can actually have access to good food and that we don't have to break the bank to do that,” she said.

Mayer grew up in Colombia and her first language is Spanish. The neighborhood where they’re setting up this new urban farm has historically been home to a large Hispanic population. So Mayer will help bridge the language gap to involve that part of the community in their project.

Urban Symbiosis
This corner lot in north Denver sits between a school and homes. Soon it will go from dry and barren to lush and fruitful.

While Mayer jokes she isn’t much of a gardener yet, she said tasting the fruits of her labor is fulfilling.

“When something sprouts in my garden, I just feel good,” she said.

Urban Symbiosis wants to bring those positive feelings to more people in the community.

Grevious, a military veteran, first started gardening to reconnect with his children after returning home from deployment in 2015.

“It all sparked from that one moment,” he said. Now, with support from the state, these urban gardens can keep expanding.




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