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City official gets slap on wrist for botched implosion that left Little Village covered in dust

An investigation by the city’s watchdog recommended one official be fired and two others disciplined for 2020 debacle.

Dust cloud from a smokestack implosion blankets Little Village on April 11, 2020.
On April 11, 2020, a dust cloud covered the Little Village neighborhood after the old Crawford power plant smokestack was imploded.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

A city public health official will receive a written reprimand for failing to take actions to prevent the botched implosion at a former power plant that left Little Village blanketed in dust in 2020, according to a watchdog report released Friday.

An investigation by the city’s Office of Inspector General found that an assistant commissioner at the Chicago Department of Public Health was warned about potential problems with the demolition of the former Crawford power plant but did not act.

As a result, the entire community was blanketed with dust after an almost 400-foot chimney at the old coal plant was imploded and came crashing down to the ground. The dust could have been better contained with proper planning, the report added.

“The assistant commissioner’s abdication of responsibility and willful bureaucratic negligence allowed the demolition contractor to proceed unchecked with minimal dust mitigation measures,” the report said.

The official should be disciplined, including a potential firing, the inspector general wrote. The recommendation was briefly mentioned in a previous report last fall.

The city health department, which is led by Dr. Allison Arwady, told the inspector general the official will get only a written reprimand and disagreed the employee was negligent or incompetent in overseeing the planning, the report said. The department has an environmental division that was responsible for making sure the demolition implosion didn’t pose a threat to public health. The official was not named in the report.

The inspector general also recommended that two officials in the buildings department be disciplined, but neither received any punishment, the report said.

The city told the inspector general the health official should have taken action but put the blame for the mishap on Hilco Redevelopment Partners, which owned the Crawford plant and was demolishing it to make way for a 1 million-square-foot warehouse that is now completed and leased to retailer Target.

Both city departments said responsibility for the debacle “rests with the redevelopment company and its agents, noting that in private demolitions, property owners and their agents have an obligation to act in good faith,” according to the report.

In a statement to the Sun-Times, the city health department called the incident “an unacceptable event” and reiterated it was Hilco and its contractors who “failed the Little Village community” by not taking precautionary steps to contain the dust.

A Hilco executive did not respond to a request for comment.

Concerned about possible environmental and health threats, community organizers had asked the city to hold off on the demolition, which occurred on the Saturday of Easter weekend 2020 in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The organizers and Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) also asked the city to release the full report of the investigation, which Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has refused to do.

“It’s appalling,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the 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.