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'We Can't Live Here': Boulder County Faces Lawsuits Over Industrial-Scale Compost On Open Space

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) - Opposition is growing against a proposed industrial-scale compost facility in Boulder County. The county plans to build the facility on open space near Highway 287 and Lookout Road, just a couple of miles from downtown Erie.

(credit CBS)

According to documents obtained through an open records request, the county has been quietly planning the facility for years without any public input.

Erie's Board of Trustees only recently got wind and held their own public hearing. County officials, they say, refused to attend so the trustees fired off a letter to county commissioners warning them to back off of the project.

Trustees and neighbors aren't only concerned by the lack of transparency, but the county's choice of a location.

(credit Boulder County)

The county plans to build the massive facility on 40 acres of open space with wetlands, hundreds of trees and a major irrigation ditch. The land is so special Boulder County put it under a conservation easement 30 years ago to protect it from the very kind of development the county now has planned for the site.

The facility would be unlike any other in the country in its size and scope. Documents show the County plans to accept materials from all over the region and compost everything from dead animals and construction debris to sewage sludge or human waste.

"I really hope that we stop calling this a composting facility. We really need to start calling it a waste processing facility," said Kit Wagner, one of dozens of neighbors who were blindsided by the proposal and are planning to sue.

Wagner said, before the county purchased the land two years ago, she tried to buy the property for her tree care company and was told it was inconsistent with a conservation easement because she used diesel trucks.

(credit Boulder County)

Erie Mayor Jennifer Carroll says the town found out about the facility from neighbors, not the county.

"It has been fumbled. It has been secret," Carroll said, adding that the town is considering suing. "What does that do to your groundwater and everyone downstream that's using that water? What does that do to your air quality? What does it even do to the soil that you're then going to put on farms and grow food from and let alone traffic."

Andrew Barth with Boulder County Public Works said the facility is still "up in the air" despite numerous renderings and hundreds of documents suggesting otherwise.

"We believe that the point for open dialogue about this facility has not yet come to fruition," said Barth.

He admits there's no other site identified and he said initial studies indicate they can mitigate impacts to wildlife, plants, and groundwater, as well as most of the odor.

"If that cannot happen, I do not see this facility move forward," Barth explained.

Nancy Davies, who lives adjacent to the property, said if the county can void a conservation easement, turn wetlands into industrial land, and do it with open space dollars and no public input, it can do anything.

"I don't know why I would believe anything that Boulder County says. They just break their promises," Davies said. "If they do this, we can't live here. We can't sell it and it will bankrupt us."

Jamie Taylor, another neighbor, said everyone in Boulder County should be alarmed that the county would build an industrial-scale facility on open space.

"Anyone who cares about open space in Colorado needs to be on alert," Taylor said.

Taylor says her property also contains a conservation easement but, she said, the county wouldn't even let her put a swing set on the land for her son.

Neighbors say the project is all about money and that Eco-cycle stands to benefit most. Documents indicate the non-profit has led the planning even though the director of Eco-cycle is the sister of a former county commissioner who was only term-limited this year.

The County insists the project is about zero waste. Emails show it plans to sell the sewage sludge as farm fertilizer, which is legal but, some studies show, may not be safe. The EPA says sewage sludge contains hundreds of chemicals including PFAS, the kind that have caused cancer in firefighters.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which also needs to approve the facility, says the chemicals don't appear to be at levels that cause harm but that research is ongoing. The county has not said when it will make a decision on whether to move forward with the facility, but it is required to hold public hearings first.

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