From pollution to solution

BoCo can model community engagement with coal ash cleanup

Valmont Power Plant. Courtesy: Boulder County

By Alejandro Murillo

Boulder, a beacon of environmental consciousness, faces a pivotal moment in its quest for climate justice. The Valmont Power Station, once a bastion of industrial progress, now stands as a stark reminder of the environmental challenges we confront. As plans unfold for the cleanup of coal ash at the site, it is imperative for Boulder residents to engage with this issue, recognizing its profound implications for environmental health and social equity.

To fully grasp the significance of this cleanup effort, it’s important to understand key terms such as coal ash, groundwater and beneficial reuse. Coal ash, the byproduct of coal combustion, contains harmful pollutants that can leach into groundwater, posing risks to both ecosystems and human health. Beneficial reuse involves repurposing waste materials in a manner that adds value, offering a sustainable solution to waste management.

For nearly a century, the Valmont Power Station burned coal to generate electricity, leaving behind over one million tons of coal ash. This waste, buried onsite in unlined landfills, poses significant environmental risks. Groundwater monitoring has revealed elevated levels of contaminants such as lithium and selenium, threatening both the environment and public health.

In response to regulatory requirements, Xcel Energy, the owner of the Valmont site, is proposing a comprehensive cleanup plan. This plan includes pumping and treating contaminated groundwater and removing coal ash from the landfill for beneficial reuse. While these actions hold promise for long-term environmental improvement, they also raise concerns about potential health risks associated with coal ash pollutants.

While regulatory agencies oversee the cleanup process, the Valmont Community Commission facilitates dialogue, shares information and addresses concerns to ensure that community voices are heard throughout the decision-making process.

The Valmont Community Commission is supported by Boulder County Public Health and the county’s Office for Sustainability Climate Action and Resilience. The agencies are collaborating closely with important partners like the Boulder County Climate Justice Collaborative (BoCoCJC), leaders of the Community Led Preparedness Training (CPT) program, The Boulder Watershed Collective and community leaders of the neighboring manufactured home communities at Vista, Columbine and San Lazaro. 

This coalition emphasizes the importance of equity in addressing environmental challenges and advocating for collaboration between government agencies and frontline communities.

As the Valmont Power Plant cleanup progresses, Boulder residents have an opportunity to make their voices heard. Engaging in the public comment period allows individuals to provide input on the proposed cleanup strategies, ensuring that community concerns are taken into account. Additionally, residents can participate in community-led efforts to promote environmental justice, working toward inclusive solutions that benefit all members of the community. 

There will be various public comment periods hosted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment on the different reports that Xcel Energy provides to the state. The Valmont Community Commission is preparing for these public comments — the first of which is anticipated by the end of this summer — by connecting with third-party experts and maintaining communication with Boulder County Public Health. The Valmont Community Commission meets about once a month. County-presented public meetings and questions can be found at

The cleanup of coal ash at the Valmont Power Station represents a critical step toward environmental justice in Boulder. By actively engaging with this issue and partnering with organizations like BoCoCJC, the Valmont Community Commission and the CPT program, residents can contribute to a more sustainable future for their community. 

Through collaboration, dialogue and advocacy, Boulder can set an example for cities everywhere, demonstrating the power of grassroots activism in addressing climate challenges. Let us seize this opportunity to create positive change and build a healthier, more equitable world for future generations. 

If you have questions or — even better — you’d like to get involved, contact [email protected].

Alejandro Murillo is a member of the steering committee for Climate Justice Collaborative of Boulder County. Micha K. Ben David and Marianne Shiple, also members of the CJC steering committee, contributed to this piece.

This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Valmont Community Commission was led by Boulder County agencies. The county supports the commission, which is community led.


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