By Lauren DiSpirito

DENVER (CBS4)– Federal authorities told the Colorado Department of Transportation and opponents of the planned Interstate 70 expansion this week that they will open an investigation into claims the project violates the Civil Rights Act.

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The pending investigation comes in response to a federal complaint filed with the U.S Department of Transportation by Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, and neighborhood groups impacted by the project, including the Cross Community Coalition, Colorado Latino Forum and Elyria-Swansea Neighborhood Association.

Filed last month, the complaint alleges CDOT’s plan will result in “disparate and severe environmental and economic impacts” on the predominantly Latino communities.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Candi CdeBaca, who revived the Cross Community Coalition one year ago to fight the planned widening of the interstate and is a named complainant, considers the response progress in a years-long battle against the plan. She says she’ll meet with investigators from the Federal Highway Administration who are traveling from Washington, D.C. to Denver early next week.

“Any attention paid to this issue is a win for us,” CdeBaca said, “because we’ve been ignored for so long and our voices have been silenced.”

CBS4's Lauren DiSpirito interviews Candi CdeBaca (credit: CBS)

CBS4’s Lauren DiSpirito interviews Candi CdeBaca (credit: CBS)

CDOT is nearing the final planning stages on its $1.2 billion proposal to remove the existing I-70 viaduct between Colorado and Brighton Boulevards, lower the highway approximately 30 feet below grade, and add toll lanes.

According to the complaint, I-70 was built in the area over the objections of residents. Construction of the planned expansion would “increase exposure to freeway-related air pollution and expose residents to airborne dust from existing Superfund sites that are contaminated by lead and arsenic.” CdeBaca says the plan would triple the highway’s size.

(credit: CDOT)

(credit: CDOT)

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“It’s discrimination because the neighborhood is over 80 percent Latino, it’s historically been a low-income neighborhood, often immigrant neighborhood,” CdeBaca said. “We’re being taken advantage of, our lack of financial, political, and human and social capital are being exploited right now.”

As the investigation is launched, CDOT will continue to move forward with the project.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

“It has reached the end of its lifespan and it’s no longer a situation where we can continue to study this for years and years,” White said of the viaduct bridge, which was built in 1964.

She says CDOT has been sensitive to community members’ concerns – something CdeBaca disputes – and is proud of the work it’s done to seek residents’ input. An environmental study into impacts is nearly complete and CDOT has started the procurement process in the public-private partnership endeavor.

In response to questions of health and pollution concerns, White says the work would comply with environmental regulation and CDOT feels confident it can do the project while “protecting the safety of everyone.”

CDOT said the I-70 east viaduct is showing signs of deterioration (credit: CDOT)

CDOT said the I-70 east viaduct is showing signs of deterioration (credit: CDOT)

“We feel like this is a really good solution for the community and for our traveling public,” White said, adding, “There’s a mix of perspectives and I would expect that, this is a huge project, it’s a huge project for CDOT, it’s a huge project for the state, so you’re never going to have a consensus on the right solution.”

Opponents hope the investigation eventually forces CDOT to reconsider alternatives, like re-routing traffic through I-270 and I-76, which CdeBaca supports. A federal lawsuit, focusing on air quality concerns and separate from this complaint, is pending against the project.

“We are looking forward to making the case that CDOT’s proposal magnifies the already discriminatory impact that I-70 has had on these neighborhoods for decades, leading to reduced life expectancies and the highest rates of pollution-related illnesses in the city,” said Heidi McIntosh, an attorney at Earthjustice.

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Lauren DiSpirito reports for CBS4 News at 10 p.m. She covers breaking news and feature stories along Colorado’s Front Range. Follow her on Twitter @CBS4Lauren. Share your story ideas with her here.