City was ‘negligent,’ showed ‘incompetence’ protecting Little Village from pollution, report finds

A once-secret inspector general’s report says City Hall dropped the ball on the Crawford plant implosion in 2020.

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The botched implosion of an almost 400-feet-high chimney at the former Crawford coal plant in Little Village in 2020 created a massive dust cloud that covered homes, yards and cars.

The implosion of an almost 400-foot chimney at the former Crawford coal plant in Little Village in 2020 created a massive dust cloud that covered homes, yards and cars.

Alejandro Reyes

The city of Chicago’s “negligence and incompetence” allowed a demolition dust storm to blanket Little Village in 2020, according to a inspector general’s report that rips City Hall for its response to the debacle.

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The report — which was finalized in 2021 but long kept secret by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration — blames three city officials who were involved as well as developer Hilco over poor planning for the implosion of the nearly 400-feet-tall chimney at the old Crawford coal-fired power plant.

When the structure was brought tumbling down, it spewed a massive dust cloud that covered homes, yards, cars and everything else in the area near the plant.

In the long-secret report, then-City Hall Inspector General Joe Ferguson recommended disciplinary action be taken against two city Buildings Department employees, Marlene Hopkins and Jorge Herrera, and Dave Graham, an assistant commissioner in the city Department of Public Health, for their oversight failure, “which should factor the magnitude of the public health, welfare and safety threat to innocent, unwitting community members.”

Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that city officials were warned that the implosion, which happened over Easter weekend in April 2020, could cause “almost cataclysmic” harm and were advised to take precautionary measures.

A summary of the report was made public a little more than a year ago.

But the full 94-page report has been kept under wraps by Lightfoot even as community members, the Chicago City Council, Ferguson and others have called for its release.

Ferguson declined to comment.

In a written statement Tuesday, Lightfoot administration officials didn’t defend steps leading up to the event but said City Hall acted “swiftly and decisively” afterward and took measures to prevent future problems with demolitions.

The coal-fired power plant was being demolished by Hilco to make way for a distribution warehouse for Target.

Community residents opposed the project, saying a warehouse drawing hundreds of diesel trucks a day was replacing one source of pollution with another.

But pleas to hold off on the demolition in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were ignored, said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

The city’s “staff played a direct and active role, driving the planned implosion forward and abandoning their duty to inform and protect the public,” Wasserman said after reviewing the report.

The report notes that initially the plan for demolition involved no implosion. Yet, once the plan was changed, a new permit wasn’t required.

“The original permit process disclosed a planned demolition that would not proceed by way of implosion through explosives,” the report says.

Ferguson’s report says Herrera and Hopkins should have made sure there was a new permit review for the implosion.

According to the inspector general’s report, Graham knew the new plan “significantly downscaled the dust mitigation measures,” and all three city employees later downplayed their parts in the process.

“Hopkins and Herrera continually sought to minimize their role in the implosion process, despite conducting the bulk of coordination with Hilco in planning the city’s involvement,” the report says.

Instead, the two said the city’s Department of Transportation somehow was responsible for planning the demolition. According to the report, there were multiple instances like this of department officials pointing fingers at one another.

Of the Buildings Department’s role, Herrera even researched the matter, according to the report, which says his fact-finding “remarkably involved only exploring a publicly available search engine to ascertain [the department’s] responsibilities.”

Hopkins wasn’t disciplined — and was promoted months after the Little Village implosion.

Herrera, then the chief building inspector, also was not disciplined.

Graham had been recommended for discipline, possibly firing. But City Hall decided a written reprimand was appropriate punishment.

Asked about a key phone call before the demolition, the report says, “Graham stated that he only attended half of this call and did not pay attention.”

Ferguson’s report also criticizes the Lightfoot administration for its haste in assessing penalties against Hilco and its contractors, which paid a combined $68,000 and admitted no wrongdoing. Hilco paid less than a third of the amount.

“Despite the egregious repercussions of Hilco’s conduct, [the inspector general] will not be recommending any further action against Hilco due to the legally preclusive effect of the city settling with Hilco,” the report said.

Lightfoot administration officials have said the report could not be released, though that has stirred some debate.

Deborah Witzburg, who was appointed inspector general last year, declined to comment on the report other than to say “confidential documents should not be publicly released.”

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” García, D-Ill., who is challenging Lightfoot in the mayoral race, said the report showed “bad decision-making” and a “lack of accountability.”

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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