By Kati Weis

THORNTON, Colo. (CBS4) – Residents in the city just a short ride north up the interstate from Denver are fed up, saying for 15 years, the owner of the Thornton Shopping Center has failed to clean up toxic dry cleaning chemicals that are seeping into nearby neighborhoods. They feel the city and state have not taken enough action to ensure the site gets cleaned up and redeveloped.

“I would call it incompetence,” said Thornton resident Seamus Blaney. “Nobody is willing to step up to the plate and assume responsibility.”

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Blaney is one of many Thornton residents who has tried to lobby to the city to take stronger action to improve the Thornton Shopping Center, a center he says has become more dilapidated and unattractive as each year goes by, and has become an eyesore that attracts crime.

He’s also concerned about the pollution there. City officials say historical dumping of toxic dry cleaning chemicals at the center has created an underground plume that has spread in the water table of nearby neighborhoods.

A map of where the plume of dry cleaning chemicals has traveled. (credit: City of Thornton)

“The toxic plume has gotten bigger,” Blaney said. “So do we sit around and wait until it gets bigger again?”

City officials say the owner has just started the cleanup process of the chemicals, but that is far from being completed.

“The owner of the Thornton Shopping Center bought the plaza without doing environmental due diligence, about 15 years ago, and it within five months, he was notified by the state that he had a mess,” said City of Thornton Redevelopment Administrator Chad Howell.

Howell says the cleanup process will likely take another two years before it’s completed.

“I would agree with the neighbors that the cleanup phase should have started a lot sooner than 15 years,” Howell said. “Treatment chemicals have been injected into the ground to break down the dry cleaning chemicals… with dry cleaning chemicals, they’re very persistent in the environment and they’re very difficult to clean. So, we see it as good news that at least the off site cleanup has started and and truly nothing good will ever happen at the shopping center, unless the cleanup is completed.”

Howell says so far, the city doesn’t believe there’s any imminent danger to nearby residents as a result of the chemicals, because they are pretty deep in the ground, and testing so far has not indicated any toxic fumes in nearby homes.

But Howell says that could always change, so officials continue to test to make sure locals are safe.

Thornton Shopping Center (credit: Dale Atchison, CBS4)

A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, or CDPHE, says the chemicals released include tetrachloroethene (PCE, also known as perchloroethylene or “perc”) and related dry cleaner chemicals.

The owner, Jay Brown, says he bought the property without knowing it was contaminated, and since the purchase in 2005, all of his budget to modernize the shopping center has gone to dealing with the pollution. He even wrote a letter to Governor Polis, desperate for a different solution for the situation. Governor Polis responded, reiterating he must comply with the CDPHE’s mitigation requirements.

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The CDPHE says environmental law stipulates the property owners are “responsible for environmental investigation and remediation efforts and associated costs.”

“Unfortunately, three months after the property was purchased we were notified by the State environmental agency, CDPHE, that our property had dry cleaner contamination. The Phase 1 environmental report we relied on was faulty, our attorneys were negligent and did not protect us, and thus the Colorado law made us the ‘responsible party’. NOT the dry cleaner owners who actually contaminated the property, and not the investor group who owned the property before us,” Brown wrote in a statement to CBS4. “For the past 16 years, we’ve worked with CDPHE and City of Thornton, limited only by financial resources, to do our best to manage the contamination. When the property was purchased, we had no idea that there was a mammoth multi-million dollar spill, and we certainly did not have the finances to clean it up as required by the State.”

Brown said he is now hopeful that his company can address the issue.

“Instead of spending our budgeted improvement money on turning the Thornton Shopping Center into a more modern, attractive shopping area, we were forced to use those modernization funds toward cleaning up someone else’s illegal activity,” Brown said. “We’ve borrowed millions of dollars from various sources to help with the environmental conditions and associated legal fees. It’s been an unbearable situation in many ways, and yet we are still hopeful that we are able to solve the problem for the State, City of Thornton, and the surrounding neighbors.”

The CDPHE also weighed in about the situation, saying it sued Mr. Brown twice for failures to comply with the corrective action plan for the site.

“This is a challenging site,” a CDPHE spokesperson wrote in a statement to CBS4. “Thornton, LLC and Mr. Brown are currently subject to a court order that sets out upcoming deadlines through November 2021. CDPHE is requiring Thornton, LLC and Mr. Brown to install additional groundwater monitoring wells later this year to provide additional groundwater test points. After the court order expires, additional investigation and treatment will be required by the state. Most recently, CDPHE inspectors cited Thornton, LLC in May 2021 for potential violations of state hazardous waste regulations. We have an open Compliance Advisory and cannot discuss that enforcement process at this time.”

Much of the shopping center is boarded up. (credit: Dale Atchison, CBS4)

Meanwhile, the city has sued the owner for code violations, but a judge suspended a more than $30,000 fine against Brown to give him more time to get the site up to snuff, something that has further angered residents.

“There’s been no accountability for the owner of the property,” said Kathy Henson, a Thornton resident so frustrated by the shopping center eyesore, she decided to run for city council. “He did nothing to maintain this property for a very long time.”

Henson and Blaney say they see great potential for the shopping center, envisioning rooftop restaurants or a performing arts center.

But Howell says until the pollution gets cleaned up, it will remain in disrepair, because no developer is willing to assume the liability.

“It boggles my mind, in all honesty,” Blaney said. “We’re looking for solutions, not hurdles, and I think it’s time. The city of Thornton is going to pay the price in years to come if they don’t address this issue today.”

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A community meeting on the issue will be held Wednesday, June 30, at 5:30 p.m., at the Thornton Civic Center’s first floor training room. Residents can also attend by Zoom. For more information on how to participate, and to learn more about the history of the shopping center controversy, click here.

Kati Weis