Thornton’s old mall is a toxic hazard and threatens neighbors — and the cleanup is years in the making

Colorado’s tradition of prioritizing environmental compliance over punishment played out again this week as Thornton officials pressed for cleanup of a shopping center north of Denver that’s tainted with asbestos and toxic chemicals.

For more than a decade, leaders in Thornton, a booming bastion of relatively affordable housing, have been trying to encourage redevelopment of the Thornton Shopping Center, which opened in 1955 on 20 acres. They see the site as the commercial heart of their community and, like suburban counterparts nationwide struggling with increasingly dilapidated malls, seek a modern mixed-use replacement.

A few months after Illinois-based Thornton, LLC, and owner Jay Brown bought the site for $8 million in 2005, documents show state health inspectors found the cancer-causing chemical perchloroethylene, or PCE, spreading underground in water and soil from the old Thornton Dry Cleaners toward multifamily apartments.

Under state and federal law, redevelopment cannot begin until property owners fix environmental damage. And the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for years has been demanding that Brown complete a cleanup that he claims he cannot afford.

The PCE used in dry cleaning and metal degreasing is pernicious, designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable carcinogen that also attacks nerves. It eats through concrete, stays volatile for decades, poisons soil and water — and sometimes the air inside homes. Cleaning it up to the point of meeting state health standards can cost millions — in this case, a Thornton city memo from Dec. 22 pegs the cost between $8.6 million and $12.3 million — and has proved so difficult that Colorado officials in 2014 relaxed standards for sites deemed low-risk.

Thornton attorneys prosecuted Brown, who in December pled guilty to 76 municipal building code violations. His sentencing didn’t happen as scheduled in January. A judge gave him more time to finish asbestos removal and demolition.

This week, Brown asked for even more time, telling the judge that contractors are ready to demolish the shopping center but that bad weather and more-than-expected asbestos are delaying work. Thornton prosecutor Tyler Jeffery pointed to “purposeful inaction” by Brown, calling this an “egregious case” where “there needs to be a punishment.”

Instead of imposing a $111,300 fine, the judge reduced it to $37,000, then suspended it until a June 30 hearing, saying punishment could strain Brown financially and work against compliance.

Complex chemical cleanup

Colorado officials responsible for enforcing environmental laws have said collaborating with property owners rather than punishing them is more practical — especially in cases involving PCE. Those cleanups are complicated, requiring digging up soil, thermal heat treatments and installation of underground barriers. State enforcers have cited fears they’ll put cash-strapped small operators out of business, leaving nobody to pay for the remediation.

But critics contend punishment would deter environmental crimes and protect people.

“The neighborhoods of Thornton have put up with more delays and excuses than necessary,” Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said after this week’s hearing. “Some people only care about money, so they pollute our environment, dump in our communities, and operate slums. They don’t care enough about the community to recognize opportunities to make improvements. In those situations, only penalties that affect their bottom line get their attention.”

CDPHE records show 102 toxic PCE plumes spreading around the state, mostly from dry cleaner pollution before 1980. Hundreds of sites where dry cleaning businesses once stood haven’t been tested, and a review of state files in 2014 found people near toxic sites, mostly low-income residents, were likely exposed in the past.

A CDPHE spokeswoman this week said a corrective action unit “continues to pursue enforcement” against owners responsible for PCE and other pollution, but couldn’t cite recent PCE cases in where fines were imposed.

The Thornton problem escalated to the point that Brown wrote to Gov. Jared Polis last May, begging for help to stay out of jail and blaming “lack of resources” — not unwillingness – to embark on remediation before July 2020.

Polis replied on Aug. 14, acknowledging Brown’s cleanup efforts but emphasizing “there has to be accountability from responsible parties” and identifying Brown as responsible for this site.

“I strongly urge you to comply with environmental requirements,” Polis wrote.

In October, state officials took legal action against Brown in Adams County District Court, which led to an injunction ordering Brown to begin cleaning up the PCE contamination this year.

Vandals have entered the shopping center, the judge noted this week, scavenging copper wiring. And city leaders voiced frustrations.

“Like many people in our community, I’m focused on solving the issue of the Thornton Shopping Center. It has been a problem for too long and Jay Brown is the person responsible for it,” Mayor Jan Kulmann said. “It is entirely appropriate that he has had to spend significant amounts of money to remedy the many issues on his property. There’s a lot left to fix and he needs to get it done very quickly.”

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