City won’t release investigation on Little Village implosion, dust storm

Ald. Rodriguez disputes the Lightfoot Administration’s stance that a watchdog report must remain secret for legal reasons and says residents deserve to know about possible negligence by officials.

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A cloud of dust spreads across the Little Village neighborhood after the Crawford power plant smokestack was imploded in April 2020.

A cloud of dust spreads across the Little Village neighborhood after the Crawford power plant smokestack was imploded in April 2020.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Little Village residents will have to wait another month to learn additional details about a watchdog report that recommended a firing and disciplinary actions related to the coal plant implosion debacle that left the West Side community blanketed in dust last year.

City officials will not release the report, saying Chicago’s municipal law related to such investigations will not allow it, though the City Council member who represents the area disputes the assertion.

In October, the Sun-Times reported that the city’s outgoing inspector general had completed an investigation that found three city officials should be disciplined, including a possible firing, for the 2020 Easter weekend implosion of an almost 400-foot chimney at the Crawford Generating Station that crashed to the ground and created a massive dust cloud coating homes, lawns, cars and other property.

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In a statement to the Sun-Times, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Administration said that an investigation into actions by city public health and buildings officials will be summarized in a report from the inspector general next month. A full report will not be released by City Hall, officials said, citing what they say is guidance from Chicago municipal code.

The city can make an inspector general report public if it contains “sustained findings” of conduct that either “is associated with a death” or “is or may be a felony as defined in the Illinois Criminal Code and is of a compelling public interest,” according to a municipal code citation provided by the city.

“The current case does not meet the limited circumstances which authorize release,” a city statement said.

But Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), who has called on Lightfoot to release the report said he’s been told there is a legal argument for the mayor to release it.

“I stick to my statement from before,” Rodriguez said, adding that he spoke with an attorney knowledgeable of the situation who “has a different opinion” than the city’s interpretation.

Last month, after previously sending a letter to the mayor, Rodriguez said the report must “be released so we can understand more thoroughly the circumstances leading up to this event and if there was negligence on behalf of the city departments or workers in this process.”

The buildings and health departments were involved in the city’s planning for the demolition and implosion, which was being done to make way for a 1 million square foot warehouse development opposed by a number of community members. That warehouse, built by Hilco Redevelopment Partners, is now leased to retailer Target.

Outgoing Inspector General Joe Ferguson made a brief mention of the Little Village investigation in his final report in October. In that document, he said that the city had received the results of his office’s investigation and that two buildings department officials should be disciplined and a city public health official should receive “discipline up to and including discharge.”

A community activist said she was disappointed by the city’s lack of transparency on the matter.

“It just continues to be the same — more disrespect to the neighborhood,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

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

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