hazardous waste

Syringes and drug paraphernalia found during the cleaning of an illegal homeless camp in Denver. 

After nearly three hours of discussion and public comment, the Denver City Council voted Monday to extend the city’s contract with a hazard cleaning service, despite controversy regarding the firm’s cleaning of homeless camps.

The company, Environmental Hazmat Services, is contracted by the city to dispose of hazardous waste in public spaces. When cleaning homeless camps, the company is also responsible for collecting and storing items belonging to camp residents for them to collect later.

On Monday and during previous council meetings, several community members accused the firm's workers of engaging in abusive behavior during camp cleanups and leaving camps filthy.

Despite these concerns, the contract extension was passed in an 11-2 vote, with only council members Candi CdeBaca and Jamie Torres voting no. This vote came after the majority of council members criticized the firm, but called the cleaning service a necessity.

“The contract ends on Oct. 10 next month. What happens if we vote down this contract? Who will be doing hazardous waste removal on Oct. 11 if we vote down this contract?” asked Councilman Chris Herndon.

“We don’t have a plan B,” said Will Fenton with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. “It could be six to 10 months (to find a replacement).”

Allegations against the firm included employees mocking the homeless residents, confiscating the residents’ property to use themselves, throwing away property requested to be stored and intentionally breaking belongings, like snapping tent poles.

Other complaints came directly from council members, with multiple members saying the firm does not adequately clean the camps, including one camp that allegedly had 2,000 pounds of trash left at the site.

In response to these concerns, the contract extension also requires the firm's workers to undergo sensitivity training, participate in on-site performance reviews and have cleanings signed off by city staff, according to the contract.

“We hear your feedback and we’ve made adjustments,” Fenton said.

Environmental Hazmat Services did not respond to requests for comment regarding the allegations. No one from the firm was present at the council meeting to answer questions.

During Monday’s public hearing, 13 residents spoke on the contract, 10 of whom asked the council to vote against the extension due to the various complaints. Those in favor spoke of the need for cleaning services due to unsanitary conditions throughout the city.

Hazardous waste cleaned by the firm includes drug paraphernalia, food waste, human/animal waste and propane tanks.

“Homelessness and encampments are tough issues; they don’t have an easy answer,” said Councilman Chris Hinds. “One issue that is not tough is that District 10 would be a disaster without a way to clean our encampments.”

Council members requested the firm make several changes, including requiring name tags for employees and expanding hours of operations for the storage facility. In addition, Councilman Paul Kashmann asked the city to come up with a backup plan if they need to terminate the contract with the firm at any time.

“We need a plan B,” Kashmann said.

Of the $1,570,061 provided to the cleaning service annually, approximately $750,000 to $900,000 is spent on homeless camp cleanups alone, according to city data.

In addition to cleaning camps for the Department of Public Health and Environment, the cleaning company is used by Denver Parks and Recreation, the Department of Safety and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

With the extension, the contract is now set to expire in two years on Oct. 10, 2023. There will be no change to the $6-million contract amount.

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