Latino Voices

Mayor Lori Lightfoot Rejects Calls from Little Village Leaders to Release Full Probe of Botched Smokestack Implosion

Mayor Lori Lightfoot Rejects Calls from Little Village Leaders to Release Full Probe of Botched Smokestack Implosion

Video: We spoke with residents about the report and the issues that go beyond this one event. (Produced by Joanna Hernandez)

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday rejected calls to release the full investigation completed by Chicago’s former inspector general into the botched implosion of a smokestack in Little Village. 

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The implosion at the former Crawford coal power plant sent a plume of dust over six blocks of homes in April 2020.

Lightfoot did not respond to a question from WTTW News about whether she thought it was appropriate for her appointees to reject the inspector general’s recommendation to fire an employee of the Chicago Department of Public Health and punish two other employees of the Department of Buildings responsible for approving and overseeing the implosion of the smokestack.

City health officials were warned 213 days before the demolition that the “dust from an event like this is almost cataclysmic,” according to the summary of the report released by interim Inspector General William Marbeck. Fifty-one days before the demolition, health officials were told that dust would be “an unpreventable byproduct” of the operation, according to the report. 

In addition, senior officials in the Chicago Department of Public Health predicted that the demolition would be a “disaster,” according to the report.

One senior official in the Chicago Department of Public Health will be reprimanded in writing, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health’s response to the inspector general.

Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd Ward) told WTTW News that a single written reprimand for one employee “seems light” given the “great tragedy” of what happened after the smokestack was imploded. The full report should be released to the public, he said.

Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, echoed Rodriguez’s call for the full investigative report to be released in the “interest of transparency.”

The Lightfoot administration has not fulfilled its promise to ensure that Little Village residents get justice after the incident that turned the sky over Little Village gray with dust, Rodriguez said.

“Their salaries are paid for by taxpayers, and they deserve more accountability,” Rodriguez said. “This doesn’t restore justice to my community.”

During the 2019 mayoral campaign, Lightfoot vowed to root out corruption at City Hall while increasing transparency. Her campaign’s commercials vowed she would “bring in the light.”

In July, the City Council approved an ordinance backed by Lightfoot that gave the city’s top lawyer the power to release investigations from the inspector general about cases involving deaths or felonies. However, Lightfoot has released no reports that detail misconduct during her time as mayor.

After the incident, city officials did a “very thorough deep dive” and updated inadequate and antiquated rules, Lightfoot said.

City officials took the steps necessary to prevent another implosion from traumatizing a community and imperiling their health, Lightfoot said.

The inspector general’s probe found Hilco at fault for failing to ensure that the implosion did not endanger the health of the public and faulted officials for not taking steps to ensure a plan to protect the surrounding neighborhood was in place and would be followed.

Hilco has not been held accountable by the Lightfoot administration, Wasserman said.

Three firms involved in the implosion of the smokestack at the former Crawford Power Plant paid $370,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. In addition, city officials hit Hilco and two other firms involved in the implosion with 16 citations, which officials told the news media came with $68,000 in fines.

Hilco paid $19,500 to resolve five citations, city officials said.

That is only “a slap on the wrist,” Wasserman said.

Two other firms — MCM Management and Controlled Demolition Inc. — each paid an additional $17,000 to resolve citations related to the implosion.

In all, the three firms paid $53,500 to resolve 11 citations in connection with the implosion, officials said.

Initially, the city levied an additional $17,000 fines against HRP Exchange 55, the subsidiary created by Hilco to handle the demolition of the coal plant and construction and operations of a new warehouse, now leased to Target,

However, Hilco and HRP Exchange 55 are the same corporate entity and could not be fined separately, so five citations were dropped, said Cesar Rodriguez, Lightfoot’s press secretary.

“In addition to paying its fines for violations of the public health code, Hilco was required by the city to pay for state-of-the-art measures to monitor and assure air quality on and around the site going forward,” Cesar Rodriguez said. “The costs of these measures, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, was borne by Hilco.”

After the incident, which touched off widespread outrage, Lightfoot crafted new rules governing the rarely used demolition method to require community meetings to take place before permits could be issued as well as increased monitoring during the work by a variety of city agencies.

Note: This story was originally published Jan. 20. It has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight: Latino Voices” conversation.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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