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City official should be fired, 2 others punished for coal plant implosion debacle in Little Village, watchdog says

The discipline recommendations come in a critical report by the outgoing inspector general about the demolition that left a community covered in dust.

The implosion of a 95-year-old smokestack in Little Village blanketed the surrounding area in a cloud of dust, but testing of particulate matter, dust and soil composition and building debris, conducted by the Chicago Department of Public Health and U. S. Environmental Protection Agency showed “no apparent health risk to the surrounding community,” the city announced Monday.
A person walks though the dust cloud in Little Village after the botched implosion of the Crawford Generating Station smoke stack in April 2020.
Tyler Laiviere/Sun-Times file

Three city officials should be disciplined, including a possible firing, for the botched implosion of a former coal power plant that left Little Village covered in a massive blanket of dust on Easter weekend last year, Chicago’s watchdog said in a new report.

In his final public report, former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson said his office forwarded the discipline recommendations to City Hall. A full report is expected to be released in the coming months once Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has a chance to respond and either accept the recommendations or propose its own course of action.

The implosion April 11, 2020 showed the city did not adequately prepare for the dust storm created when an almost 400-foot chimney came crashing down at the Crawford Generating Station at West 36th Street and South Pulaski Road. Caught on video, the dust cloud coated homes, cars and yards. At the time, Lightfoot echoed residents’ outrage.

The procedure was planned, overseen and executed by multiple city departments, including the Department of Buildings and the Department of Public Health. While the full details of Ferguson’s report are not yet public, the report singles out individuals from both departments and even suggests a possible “discharge” of an unnamed public health official.

The recommendation includes “discipline against two Department of Buildings officials commensurate with the gravity of their violations” and “discipline up to and including discharge against one Department of Public Health official,” the inspector general’s quarterly report stated.

“That’s exactly what should have happened,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which has criticized the city’s oversight and response to the incident. The Department of “Buildings and [the health department] signed off on this.”

Two months after the implosion, Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland announced she was leaving the city, citing a desire to spend time with family.

Citing “personnel matters,” a city spokesman declined to comment. The city is required to provide the inspector general a written response within 30 days, though Lightfoot officials can ask for an extension.

Wasserman criticized the lack of transparency at City Hall more than a year and a half after the event and said city officials ignored repeated community pleas to hold off on the demolition at the time.

The Crawford plant was demolished throughout 2020 to make way for a new warehouse development for Hilco Redevelopment Partners, which is now leasing the building to retailer Target. The smokestack incident led to a change in the way the city approves implosion demolitions and Hilco was issued multiple citations.

The development continues to be a major source of concern and anger in the Little Village community. After fighting for years to get the Crawford coal plant shut down, which occurred in 2012, community activists said they were promised to be included in city planning discussions about what would replace it. A warehouse that draws hundreds of diesel-fuel trucks to the neighborhood was not what most of the community wanted, Wasserman and others said.

Late last year, Hilco and a pair of contractors agreed to pay $370,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the state over air pollution violations related to the chimney demolition. Community advocates have called the dollar amount and penalty disappointing.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.