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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

After Hilco Dust Disaster, City Moves To Increase Fines For Polluters

For an “egregious violation,” the fine could go up to $50,000.

A drone video showed how the dust cloud spread from the Crawford demolition site and descended onto Little Village homes.
Alejandro Reyes/YouTube
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DOWNTOWN — A city committee unanimously approved a proposal that would boost potential fines for large industrial companies that violate air pollution standards, a move that comes months after Little Village was covered in dust from a botched implosion.

The Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy backed the ordinance, which was introduced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot during a Thursday meeting. Dr. Allison Arwady, chief of the Department of Public Health, said the increased fines would “increase accountability” and would act as a “deterrence.”

Last year’s implosion of a smokestack at the former Crawford Coal Plant highlighted the need for the ordinance, Arwady said, and the current penalties for “offenses are insufficient.”

“This ordinance will bring strong enforcement tools by allowing [the] Chicago Department of Public Health to seek higher fines for industrial facilities and demolition contractors that create dust and risk the health and quality of life for some residents,” Arwady said.

Companies can be fined $1,000-$5,000 for violations. Under the proposal, the fine would increase to $5,000-$10,000 for the first violation and $10,000-$15,000 for a second violation,. Subsequent violations would result in fines of $15,000-$20,000.

For an “egregious violation,” the fine could go up to $50,000, Arwady said.

The fines would apply to large industrial facilities that have the potential to emit 100 tons of pollutants, which covers about 90 facilities in Chicago; and demolition contractors for commercial buildings over 40 feet tall or a cluster of buildings spanning 150,000 cubic feet.

Smaller businesses and projects would not be affected, Arwady said.

Committee Chair Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said 2020 was “particularly challenging for residents” in Little Village and Lincoln Park communities, “who endured air pollution violations during a respiratory pandemic.” 

“Currently, polluters are paying low fines for violations, and in some instances they are nothing more than a slap on the wrist,” Cardenas said. “It is incumbent on us to focus on accountability when discussing air pollution.”

Cardenas said there is still a lot to work to do, but the increase in fines would “send a message” that a company that “disrespects our community … will pay a price.”

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), whose ward includes the Hilco site, supporting increasing fines, but he said the ordinance didn’t get at what community advocates are looking for.

“I think community advocates — and, to be quite honest, myself and my neighbors — are looking for active ways to hold these bad actors accountable … . Part of that is forcing them to respect neighborhoods,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez suggested a “restorative approach” in the form of a community table, where violators would be mandated to come together with the community “to address their negative actions in a holistic manner.”

“Fees are a part of that, but there needs to be a more holistic way to restoring justice to a community,” Rodriguez said.

During the meeting, Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) asked why implosions aren’t banned.

Arwady said a separate implosion ordinance is under public comment. The ordinance, introduced last year, adds more regulations, but it would not ban implosions.

Arwady said she was “hesitant to completely ban something if you don’t have another option down the line.”

The proposal to increase fines comes after officials faced pressure to sanction Hilco Redevelopment Partners and its contractors over the implosion.

The city hit the company with $68,000 in fines and state Attorney General Kwame Raoul agreed to a $370,000 fine to settle a lawsuit. City Council also approved a new law giving local leaders latitude to strip tax breaks from “bad actor” developers, but it is not retroactive and cannot be used to punish Hilco, which already received $19.7 million in incentives to redevelop the site into a Target distribution center.

The new fines ordinance will go to the full City Council Jan. 27.

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