Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday if she had known Hilco Redevelopment Partners would not follow mandatory safety measures, she never would have allowed the company to demolish a smokestack at the site of a shuttered coal-fired power plant in Little Village.
“They own this,” said Lightfoot, who described Hilco’s chief executive as “very contrite and embarrassed” about the demolition of a 95-year-old smokestack.
The result was a giant plume of dust that left homes and vehicles filthy and, potentially, created a public health hazard in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If anybody in the city government or the alderman’s office knew what was represented to us wasn’t actually gonna be followed on site, we would have stopped it in its tracks,” Lightfoot said. “But promises were made. Those promises were not kept.”
Lightfoot promised the city would do “everything we can” for Little Village residents. Street sweepers were dispatched Saturday and Sunday. All will be at Hilco’s expense, the mayor said.
“Hilco’s actually sending a team of people out today to go literally door-to-door to assess what the damages are,” the mayor said.
The company must “mitigate the harm that’s been done to residents and residents’ property,” she added.
“I want cars cleaned. I want streets swept. I want houses to be cleaned of the dust that’s settled. That is the charge I’ve given to my team, and Hilco is gonna have to own responsibility for that.”
Hilco CEO Roberto Perez issued a statement saying Hilco is “sensitive to the concerns of the community” and will continue to work with the city.
Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the smokestack was tested before the demolition permit was issued. Those reports show asbestos removal took 18 months and was completed Nov. 30 in the main building at the old Crawford power plant.
“There’s nothing in these reports at this time that is suggestive that asbestos would have been a problem,” Arwady said.
“That said, we’re collecting additional information — including some of those samples taken on site — just to make sure that everything was done appropriately.”
Arwady said testing of air samples from the neighborhood is likely to be done by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, as well as its Illinois equivalent.
The Buildings Department issued Hilco a demolition permit to implode the smokestack and other parts of the former power plant March 30, city records show.
Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) said when he was notified of the permit three days later, he asked the city health department if the company had met all requirements.
“I inquired with the city if they were allowed to do this work, and the city said yes,” he said.
Rodriguez said he later asked the health department if the work could be postponed because Hilco had delivered paper notices to some residents only a day before the demolition. The city still gave the go-ahead, Rodriguez said.
Given the late notice to residents, “I did inquire with the city whether putting a pause on the job was an option, and I was told it wasn’t an option, that they had a right to do that work,” Rodriguez said.
“Something obviously went terribly wrong.”
Maryland-based Controlled Demolition was hired to demolish the smokestack.
“Per our contract, any communication involving any of the job goes through Hilco,” said one employee reached over the phone.
Attorney Frank Avila Jr., who plans to sue on behalf of Little Village residents, likened the scene in Little Village to Chernobyl.
Lightfoot bristled, calling it a “really poor choice of words” to compare it to the Russian nuclear power plant disaster.
“I appreciate the hyperbole, but I really don’t think that’s appropriate in this time,” she said.
Lightfoot was asked whether she would support a City Council vote rescinding a $19.7 million subsidy granted to Hilco for its warehouse project on the site.
“I don’t know that there’s any basis for our taking that kind of action. But we’re reviewing everything,” she said.
As the city and Hilco try to mitigate the damage, some nearby residents feel despondent.
Kathryn Ramirez-Mercado, 32, who lives about half a mile from the old power plant, said she heard about the planned demolition Saturday morning through the news.
“My wife went outside that morning and saw the paper left on the floor. I didn’t realize that they’d only given us a day’s notice,” she said.
Ramirez-Mercado said many of her neighbors are young children and elderly residents with underlying health conditions.
“There are so many kids on our block and so many old generations,” Ramirez-Mercado said. “As a resident, it makes me feel like we’re insignificant, we’re voiceless and powerless throughout this process.”
Contributing: Tyler LaRiviere
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.