City Hall is falsely claiming it can’t release damning report on Little Village implosion, groups say

The Lightfoot administration maintains it cannot legally release a report by the city inspector general on the bungled Crawford implosion that left the neighborhood covered in dust.

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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

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration’s false claim that it can’t release a scathing watchdog report about a 2020 environmental debacle in Little Village shows the city’s pattern of disregard for communities of color, activists charged Thursday.

Accusing the administration of “environmental racism,” Kim Wasserman said that the mayor owes Little Village an apology for the city’s role in a botched implosion and toppling of an almost 400-foot smokestack near West 36th Street and South Pulaski Road in April 2020 that blanketed the community in dust. The former Crawford coal-fired power plant was being demolished to make way for a controversial 1 million square-foot warehouse now leased by Target.

Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, also said the mayor is withholding a report about the incident by the city’s Office of Inspector General. In that report, investigators recommended three city employees should be disciplined, including the firing of a high-ranking public health official for negligence in planning the demolition. The city rejected the advice and only agreed to issue a written reprimand to the unnamed health official, who had been warned of potential problems with the implosion.

Disputing the Lightfoot administration’s claims that it cannot legally release the report, Wasserman cited a section of the city code that said such a document can be made public if it shows poor management — specifically if Chicago officials act in a way that is “inefficient or wasteful.”

Additional actions should be taken against all three of the employees, a group that included two Department of Buildings officials, activists said. City officials, Wasserman said, need to acknowledge “their role in why Chicago’s No. 1 health issue is racism,” a reference to Lightfoot’s declaration last year that racism is a public health crisis.

In a statement last month, reiterated Thursday and in response to an open records request by the Sun-Times, city officials have said they are legally limited in what they can release following an inspector general investigation. They also laid almost all the blame for the incident on the project’s developer, Hilco Redevelopment Partners. Additionally, the Lightfoot administration said it made changes to demolition rules to avoid a similar incident, adding more checks and balances.

Responded Wasserman: “You can’t check and balance an environmental disaster caused by environmental racism and the staff that uphold it.”

She renewed a request that the city and Hilco pay for air pollution monitors around the Target warehouse, which has increased truck traffic in the area. Also, the city and developer should fund air filtration systems at nearby school and park buildings and the city should conduct local soil contamination sampling. A Hilco spokeswoman declined to comment.

In a Zoom news conference with activists, Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) called on the mayor to release the full report, which so far has only been briefly summarized to the public.

“The discipline eventually handed down did not come close to meeting the [inspector general’s] recommendations and it’s too little,” Rodriguez said. “We need to restore justice to Little Village community residents — to my neighbors — and this level of discipline does not do that.”

In an interview, Rodriguez (22nd) said a legal expert advised him there are no restrictions preventing the release of the report.

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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