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Developer Fires Contractor, Apologizes For Little Village Dust Disaster, But Some Neighbors Want Them Gone

With a worker's death and a roof collapse critically injuring four workers in their past, this isn't the first time Hilco has worked with this contractor and something went wrong.

The Crawford Coal Plant at 3501 S. Pulaski Rd. seen moments after its smoke stack is imploded on April 11, 2020 in Little Village.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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 LITTLE VILLAGE — After a smokestack demolition left Little Village streets covered in a cloud of dust, the developer responsible is now apologizing while pointing the finger at a contractor.

But the local aldermen — and Little Village residents, say the developer’s apology is “too little, too late.”

“The finger should be pointing straight at Hilco,” Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) said.

Roberto Perez, CEO of Hilco Redevelopment Partners, apologized for the “anxiety and fear” caused by the smokestack toppling at the century old coal plant amid the coronavirus pandemic, which affects respiratory health.

Perez blamed the disaster on their primary demolition contractor, MCM Management Corp., for failing to contain the dust cloud. Hilco has fired that contractor, Perez said, and hired Heneghan Wrecking Company in its place.

Hilco received a $19.7 million tax subsidy from the city to redevelop the site into a massive, 1-million-square-foot distribution center.

RELATED: Planned Explosion Covered Little Village In Dust During Respiratory Pandemic — Why Did The City Let It Happen?

Credit: Maclovio/ instagram@macnifying_glass
Little Village streets were covered in dust following demolition of a smokestack at the site early Saturday morning.

The planned implosion was conducted by “one of the most recognized implosion experts in the country who hired by our primary demolition contractor on site,” Perez said. Hilco expected the implosion expert would follow the permit plan approved by the city, he said.

“Despite the assurances we received from our implosion expert, the measures that were to be implemented were not sufficient to contain the dust that migrated off-site,” Perez said.

But this isn’t the first time Hilco has worked with MCM Management Corp. and something went wrong.

In 2014, Hilco and MCM Management Corp. oversaw another project where nine workers were hospitalized after a roof collapsed at a worksite in Maryland, according to the Baltimore Sun. 

The workers were dismantling a former steel mill when the roof gave away at the site. Four of the workers were critically injured, according to the report. 

Most recently, in December, a worker plummeted 50 feet to his death at the old Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village.

On Monday, Controlled Demolitions, a subcontractor of MCM Management Corp., deferred questions to Hilco. MCM Management Corp. could not be reached for comment. 

In the statement, Perez said the company is stopping all future implosions of the site moving forward. 

Asked why the company decided to move forward with the implosion during the coronavirus crisis, Hilco spokeswoman Julia Sznewajs declined to answer.

Credit: Alejandro Reyes/YouTube
A drone video showed how the dust cloud spread from the Crawford demolition site and descended onto Little Village homes.

Perez said Hilco is cooperating with the city and other agencies during their investigations.

“As a real estate redevelopment company, we take pride in our track record of exceeding expectations for all phases of our redevelopment projects and this unintended result is not acceptable,” he said.

On Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a stop work order at the site and promised to investigate, saying Perez was “embarrassed and contrite.”

Now, the city is testing air quality and soil to determine what was in the dust. City crews have also distributed masks to nearby homes, residents told Block Club.

Hilco is also sending people door-to-door to address neighbors’ concerns and planned to distribute 10,000 masks to the neighborhood.

Credit: Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago
Hilco Redevelopment Partners CEO Roberto Perez, center, answers a question from a Little Village community member in 2018.

Too little, Too late

But Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) said Hilco’s response is too little, too late.

“As the people of Little Village try, literally, to catch their breath, the fingers of blame are pointing in every direction,” Rodriguez said in a statement.

“Now Hilco is pointing its finger at the company that they hired to take that tower down. But the finger should be pointing straight at Hilco,” Rodriguez said.

”The statement they released last night is a classic example of too little, too late. The damage has been done. Now our community must decide whether or not these are the kind of neighbors we want.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago
Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) at City Council in February 2020.

The day after the implosion, Rodriguez said Hilco was “disingenuous” about its effort to keep the dust at bay, and “dishonest” about giving residents adequate warning.

But Rodriguez also took some blame, saying he should have warned neighbors faster himself.

“At this point, I wish I would have alerted residents but I didn’t, and for that I’m very sorry,” he said.

Residents criticized Rodriguez and the city for failing to notify them in advance of the implosion. 

“We get more notification with street cleaning, honestly,” Little Village resident Lucky Camargo said. “Would this be happening in Lincoln Park or Lincoln Square? …I doubt it.”

What was inhaled?

Since the outset, Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and neighbors have lobbied the city to prevent the project from moving forward. After Saturday’s implosion, that the LVEJO lobbied city officials to postpone, Wasserman said they want Hilco to abandon redeveloping the site.

“We want them to pack up and go,” Wasserman said.

Credit: Madison Hopkins/BGA
Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

The environmental group is asking the Chicago Department of Public Health release a guideline on how people can clean the dust that came into their homes, Wasserman said.

“We can’t give that advice because we don’t know what was in the dust,” Wasserman said.

Hilco also needs to pay for the medical costs of nearby residents after blanketing the neighborhood in unknown dust, Wasserman said.

“We don’t know what [neighbors] inhaled, we don’t what they were exposed to…we don’t know how that will impact their health on top of the COVID-19 crisis,” Wasserman said.

Resident Alexandra Pérez said two representatives from the company stopped by to ask them for their concerns on Monday.

But Pérez balked at the company’s reactionary efforts. They should have done this kind of outreach before the implosion happened instead of leaving rolled-up fliers clandestinely in people’s fences, she said.

Credit: Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago
Alexandra Pérez stands in her yard Sunday after Hilco toppled a smokestack at the old Crawford Coal Plant, sending a cloud of dust through Little Village.

The lifelong Little Village resident said she wants Hilco to leave.

The community “won’t benefit from” another warehouse, Pérez said.

“Those jobs will be given out to [people] outside the community so what’s the point.”

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