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Environmental Activists Doubling Down On Calls For Accountability After Leaked Hilco Demolition Report

"Our communities cannot afford another botched implosion in Chicago," one environmental justice organizer said.

Little Village residents present their demands to Ald. Michael D. Rodriguez (22nd) on Feb. 23, 2023 after the leaking of the IG report of the botched Hilco smokestack demolition.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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LITTLE VILLAGE — Southwest Side environmental groups are ramping up their fight after a leaked watchdog report detailed the city’s negligence in the botched implosion that covered Little Village in dust.

Environmental organizers, including the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Neighbors 4 Environmental Justice and Southeast Environmental Task Force, held a press conference Thursday morning to highlight their demands for transparency and action from city officials — which they’ve been fighting for since the 2020 implosion.

Advocates are doubling down on these demands more than a week after 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.

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

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Little Village residents present their demands to Ald. Michael D. Rodriguez (22nd) on Feb. 23, 2023 after the leaking of the IG report of the botched Hilco smokestack demolition.

Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said the leaked report confirms what neighbors and advocates have known from the beginning: “the negligent and inhumane permitting of Hilco’s 2020 botched implosion,” she said.

The community wants the leaked report translated into Spanish so all neighbors can read it, a community meeting with the local alderman’s office and other city officials, comprehensive soil sampling and a moratorium on implosions, Wasserman said.

“Our communities cannot afford another botched implosion in Chicago,” she said. “We cannot afford the continued coopting of accountability and transparency by this administration. We just want to breathe.”

Organizers delivered a letter outlining their demands to the area’s Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) Thursday afternoon.

Rodriguez said he’s already reached out to the relevant city departments and neighborhood nonprofits to arrange a community meeting on the issue sometime in March. He also said he supports organizers’ call for a comprehensive soil sampling.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Little Village residents present their demands to Ald. Michael D. Rodriguez (22nd) on Feb. 23, 2023 after the leaking of the IG report of the botched Hilco smokestack demolition.

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

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

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.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Michael D. Rodriguez (22nd) speaks at a City Council meeting.

Rodriguez has joined environmental groups in blasting the city’s lack of accountability and continues to push the mayor’s administration to release the report. He said he wants the report to be out there for as many people to read as possible, but is looking into the legal implications of his office translating and disseminating the document.

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.

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 resolutionrepeatedly saying city law blocks her from publicizing the document.

“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,” a mayoral spokesperson previously said. “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.”

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.

Ferguson’s office 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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