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City Officials Knew Possible Consequences Of Hilco Demolition Disaster In Little Village: Watchdog Report

According to the full report obtained by WTTW, city officials could have prevented the April 2020 botched implosion that covered part of the neighborhood in dust.

A drone video showed how the dust cloud spread from the Crawford demolition site and descended onto Little Village homes.
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LITTLE VILLAGE — A watchdog investigation into the botched smokestack implosion that covered Little Village in dust in 2020 shows city officials knew the potential consequences well in advance and didn’t do enough to stop it, according to an analysis of the full report.

WTTW first obtained and reported on the full report from former city Inspector General Joe Ferguson. It still hasn’t been made public because Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly refused to release it, saying city law forbids it.

A summary of the full report was released in January 2022, which similarly revealed that an unnamed Chicago Department of Public Health official knew the implosion could cause problems.

The April 2020 implosion at the old Crawford Coal Plant, 3501 S. Pulaski Road, has been a flashpoint in the ongoing fight over environmental racism in the Southwest Side.

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

Ferguson’s 94-page report from September 2021 detailed a “multi-agency breakdown of city regulatory oversight and constituted a knowing, bureaucratic acquiescence in an environmentally negligent demolition that generated a particulate dust cloud onsite that was predictably propelled into the residential community of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood,” WTTW reported.

The report states top officials in the city’s Department of Buildings failed to do a formal review of revised plans to demolish the smokestack, while top officials in the public health department “knew or should have known” the subcontractors hired to conduct the demolition had “outlined manifestly inferior dust mitigation measures prior to the implosion that significantly radically diverged” from a previous plan that had been reviewed in 2019 by city officials, WTTW reported.

RELATED: Instead Of Getting Fired, City Official In Botched Implosion That Covered Little Village In Dust Gets Written Reprimand

Ferguson’s analysis concludes that city officials put Little Village residents at risk when they allowed the smokestack demolition to proceed based on a permit issued in July 2018 that did not mention the use of explosives, WTTW reported.

The report also determined other officials did not do enough to ensure the implosion did not cause a massive dust cloud while others brushed off or downplayed concerns about whether the demolition should take place a month after the COVID-19 pandemic swept Chicago, WTTW reported.

Ferguson declined to comment.

Credit: Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago
Little Village residents hang signs on City Hall as they protest Mayor Lightfoot’s decision to restart Hilco demolition during pandemic on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

The City Council passed a resolution in July calling on Lightfoot’s office to release Ferguson’s full report. The mayor has rebuffed the non-binding resolution, repeatedly saying city law blocks her from publicizing the document.

A mayoral spokesperson again said city law prevents the administration from releasing the report, and said the leak was “fundamentally wrong and undermined the integrity” of the Inspector General’s office and process.

“As the Mayor and others stated at the time of the incident, the implosion at the former Crawford Generating Power Plant was an unacceptable event,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Contractor negligence and failures led to the dust cloud that created fear and trauma in Little Village. This administration took swift, public action to hold those responsible accountable. Since that time, the City has significantly enhanced efforts to protect communities from environmental harm.”

In a statement, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg criticized the leak of the report but declined further comment.

“Confidential documents should not be publicly released outside of what the law allows,” Witzburg said in a statement. “That’s not the right road to transparency, and it makes our work harder. We will continue to do everything in our power to protect those who cooperate in OIG’s investigations — that’s a sacred obligation of this work. I look forward to engaging in a responsible conversation about whether the law keeping OIG reports confidential should evolve. We’ll have that conversation in the legislative body, where it belongs.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Michael D. Rodriguez (22nd).

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), whose ward covers Little Village, said he and his constituents deserve to have the city officials responsible for oversight of the implosion held accountable.

The changes city departments made to prevent a similar disaster from happening again are “not enough,” Rodriguez said.

“It’s unconscionable that the mayor’s administration has not released the report,” he said. “The level of discipline and transparency under such a tragedy was not acceptable.” 

In September, Rodriguez and Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) co-sponsored an ordinance that would take away Corporation Counsel’s sole authority to release reports to the public and shift it to the Inspector General’s office.

The Little Village alderman told Block Club he plans to pursue passing that ordinance in City Council this year.

Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, a Little Village native running for mayor, slammed the Lightfoot administration for not releasing the full report.

“Chicagoans have long deserved to see the Inspector General’s report but rather than being open and honest with Chicagoans, Lori Lightfoot decided to cover it up, stick by the failed leadership that was responsible, and lie to all those that were harmed by this disaster,” Garcia said in a statement Tuesday. “If Lori Lightfoot is willing to cover up something of this magnitude then we know she is willing to do anything to avoid accountability.”

Credit: Maclovio/ instagram@macnifying_glass
Little Village streets were covered in dust following demolition of a smokestack in 2020.

Ferguson recommended discipline for three unnamed city officials in the public health and buildings departments for their roles contributing to the disaster, according to the summary report.

“The senior official’s abdication of responsibility and willful bureaucratic negligence allowed the demolition contractor to proceed unchecked with minimal dust mitigation measures, including a failure to soak the ground prior to the implosion,” Ferguson wrote of the public health official.


Instead Of Getting Fired, City Official In Botched Implosion That Covered Little Village In Dust Gets Written Reprimand

Ferguson’s officer recommended that that official be punished or fired. Public health officials issued a written reprimand instead, the report said. 

Ferguson’s summary report also said officials were warned 213 days before the implosion that “‘[t]he dust from an event like this is almost cataclysmic,'” and again were told 51 days before the blast that “dust would be ‘an unpreventable byproduct’ of the operation.”

Ferguson also recommended that two unnamed Department of Buildings officials be punished for not following regulations that “required the demolition permit application to detail the techniques and processes to be used, including whether explosives would be utilized,” the report stated.

The Department of Buildings declined to discipline those two officials, the report said.

One of the buildings department employees Ferguson said should be disciplined no longer works for the city; the other was promoted in November 2020, according to WTTW. The health department employee involved in the implosion also still works for the city, WTTW reported.

Little Village environmental groups blasted the city for not punishing the two officials and demanded action and an apology.

Activists begged the city to halt the demolition in 2020 due to it coinciding with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it went on, blanketing Little Village homes in dust. Hilco Redevelopment Partners was slapped with $68,000 in fines for the mishap and was forced to pay an additional $370,000 in a settlement with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.

Hilco’s warehouse opened as a Target distribution center in July 2021, despite protests by community members. In December, Hilco announced plans to build a fleet storage yard next to the warehouse.

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