Conversations on Mill Street: A neighborhood kept in the shadow of a coal-powered city

By ANDREW HILLENBRAND

Martin Drake Power Plant has been in operation for almost a century. It is one of the only coal power plants in the U.S. that still operates in the middle of a large city: Colorado Springs. Much is unknown about what emissions are being released from the plant’s eight smokestacks, and Colorado Springs residents have had little communication with the operators of the power plant, or with the city.

Mill Street is home to a neighborhood about 100 yards from the power plant, and has a large Black and Latinx community. I talked to Mill Street residents about how the power plant has impacted their lives. Here is what they had to say.

Photos Courtesy Of Andrew Hillenbrand

Tyler and Cody Schiedel live at the end of Mill Street. They have three friendly dogs who helped to welcome me. 

“We didn’t think anything of [the power plant] when we first moved here. We liked the access to the Blue Star recycling plant, how close it is to downtown, and how close it is to the highway. We didn’t think anything of the health effects, or anything we would need to research in terms of buying a house near a power plant … There’s been this weird depressurizing, and no one ever says anything about it. They don’t reach out to us residents. We don’t know if it’s good or bad. We wonder about our dogs, who keep acquiring cancer. We’ve lost three dogs and a cat by now. We’ve never had our soil tested, but we should do it. The dogs love the soil here. Our Boston terrier always ate the dirt, and they all eat the dirt now. And here’s the thing: If we get our soil tested, and there is something wrong with it, do we hire a lawyer? We’ve talked to one, but it’s most likely not going to happen. What are you going to sue them for? Then what’s the compensation? … We love our house, but we don’t want our dogs to keep dying of cancer.”

Kurt Morris was touring a house on Baltic Street, which runs parallel to Mill Street, when I talked to him. He doesn’t currently live on Mill Street, but he worked there for several years. 

“When I had to run an environmental review on the shelter I used to work at, the ground seepage didn’t even make it across the street to the shelter, but the toxins that thing kicks out are ridiculous. The thing is, if you shut that power plant down, you’re going to raise people’s bills by hundreds of dollars overnight. And what’s the benefit of shutting it down? If the damage is already done, the damage is already done. I’d like to see enter the discussion the alternative. I’m only told what I can’t have, not what I can have.”

Shaun Vijil greeted me warmly, telling me that I’ll get shot if I keep walking around the neighborhood “so suspiciously.” He talked to me about his history growing up on Conejo Street, which runs perpendicular to Mill Street. 

“I’ve lived here for 40 years. I was born and raised in this neighborhood. I wonder about the long-term because I’m 40 years old now … People say ‘that coal is bad.’ F**k yeah that coal is bad. I bet I’m going to have black lung by the time I’m dead. But who am I going to go to about it? You can’t get a lawyer and sue the city, because if you could, they’d have been sued a long time ago … The one thing that does worry me, if they shut the power plant down, is the atmosphere. Atmospheric pressure changes with heat and cold. This thing’s been running for 60, 70 years, but what’s coming out that stack? Everyone’s complaining about ‘oh it’s the smoke, it’s the smoke’, but [the power plant] says ‘No, no. It’s steam! It’s steeeaaaam!’ So go ahead and when you go home, get yourself a kettle of water, put it on the pot, and turn it on. Don’t turn the heat on in the house or anything … So now we got that steam going into the atmosphere. When they shut that down, what do you think is going to happen? They say ‘oh, it’s going to be a minimal change.’ Well bullsh*t, because you see where this is located, against the contour of the mountains; it holds the steam in. I called them before to ask about the emissions … that [are] coming out of the stacks. And I said, ‘you got eight stacks, how much is coming out of one stack?’ He said ‘Nah, I can’t do that.’ … He acted like he didn’t even know what I was talking about. I dont give a s**t if they’re kicking up acid straight into the atmosphere because I’ll be the first one dead.” 

Thomas Pantoja shooed me away at first, saying he was sick, but he ended up talking. He lives a few doors down from the Scheidels with his girlfriend. 

“I’ve lived here since I was a little kid … since I was three. My parents sold me the house. [The power plant] is an eyesore, and I don’t know if it’s contaminating us. It seems like they could have a better way of powering the city without having that in our backyard. 

To my knowledge, they are supposed to tear it down in the next 10, 15 years, which should be really good for the neighborhood … The aftermath could be a concern, because this is one of the more affordable places to live in the Springs.” 

John Papenus lives in one of the first houses on Mill Street. He has worked with Martin Drake in the past as a subcontractor and has had family on Mill Street for generations. 

“I’ve been here since ’04. We built [these houses] in ’04; these are all Habitat [for Humanity] Houses. They do it for people who don’t have the money to take a good loan, but they have enough to pay a mortgage. So, they just help out the lower class. That’s how we all got into this. We’re all working and stuff [but] couldn’t afford to buy a house. 

We get lots of coal dust. You’ll see it around the siding and stuff. I’ve got to wash the house every few months. But still, it’s not as bad as working in the coal plant. 

Nobody’s really talking about it; they’re just going with what happens … I do know that, even after they decommission it, it’s going to take a while before they clean it up … it’s probably going to be 15, 20 years before they even do anything with it. You figure, all that’s got to be torn down, hauled off, then all the dirt’s got to be excavated and hauled off. Nobody really thinks of that. And it depends on how they decommission it. If it all goes to a landfill, that’s a lot … There’s a lot to it. 

Everybody’s saying that it’s an eyesore, but it’s still producing electricity. It’s still a viable thing. There’s a lot of guys working there [with] full-time jobs. So, what are they going to do? … Until it happens, we don’t know.”

Adam Avalos lives in one of the closer houses to the power plant. 

“They need to get rid of it, man. You got a lot of coal kicking up, and you got a lot of dirt. Sometimes you get headaches down here. It’d be better if they’d just knock it down and move it somewhere else. 

One time, this guy pulled up in a semi to do some landscaping. He was sitting there 10 minutes and he got a headache [from] all the stuff coming off the power plant. We breathe it in, and we’re right by it. Coal’s nasty, man. 

Nobody from the powerplant or from the city has come to contact us about it. But I’m pretty sure in the next five, six years, they will … If they tear that down, I wonder what they’re going to make out of it. I wonder if they’re going to pay us to move out. They need to get rid of it.” 

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