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Watch: Smokestack imploded despite activists’ pleas, blanketing Little Village in dust cloud

The former Crawford Power Generating Station churned out smoke for years until environmental activists won its shutdown. Its smokestack shot out a fresh wave of particles as it was demolished Saturday morning.

A person walks their bicycle through a dust cloud descending on the Little Village neighborhood Saturday after an industrial smokestack was imploded.
A person walks their bicycle through a dust cloud descending on the Little Village neighborhood Saturday after an industrial smokestack was imploded.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

It’s been almost a decade since the former Crawford Power Generating Station quit belching smoke across Little Village.

But the shuttered 95-year-old coal plant harkened back to its polluting days Saturday morning during the latest stage of its demolition, with an implosion that sent clouds of dust particles cascading through the Southwest Side neighborhood.

On Saturday night, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city had issued an order halting work by Northbrook-based Hilco Redevelopment Partners, who leveled the massive concrete smokestack at the old plant at 3501 S. Pulaski Road as part of its plan to overhaul the site into a warehouse and distribution center.

The city was also investigating, Lightfoot said, after the demolition “resulted in dust blanketing the adjacent community.”

A few dozen curious, face-masked onlookers gathered along densely populated residential streets barely a block away from the smokestack, as a chorus of controlled detonations sent it thundering to the ground. A tan cloud erupted in its wake, coursing through the neighborhood for about 20 minutes as it dulled the morning sunlight and dusted cars, sidewalks and lawns like a flurry of snow.

Video by Tyler LaRiviere

For environmental activists who fought for years to see the Crawford station shut down under previous ownership, the latest plume was as scary as any other churned out by the plant over the years — but especially now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re dealing with insurmountable odds for those people in our neighborhood who do get sick,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “When you add to that a lack of health insurance for people who have lost their jobs [due to the statewide shutdown], for those who’ve lost their income and can’t go to the doctor — now you have to tell them to worry about all kinds of heavy elements that could be coming through their window?

“For Hilco to prioritize demolition now, much less on Easter weekend, and for the city to feel like that’s OK, is another slap in the face to our neighborhood,” said Wasserman, who was notified about the planned implosion late Thursday.

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) and the city issued an alert to residents the day before the blast, saying “the health and safety of workers and the local community is prioritized.” They highlighted “extensive dust control and mitigation efforts during and after implosion, including a variety of irrigation techniques such as water trucks, water cannons and direct transmission nebulization systems.”

Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, speaks at a September 2018 news conference at City Hall.
Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, speaks at a September 2018 news conference at City Hall.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times file photo

On its website, Hilco says before any demolition, “our team conducts a thorough walkthrough and completes an evaluation of the structures to confirm all appropriate measures have been taken and the area is ready for demolition.

“Dust control, mitigation and management are critical areas of focus during all onsite demolition activity, and we prioritize these efforts to provide a safe working environment for onsite workers and the local community.”

The company also says “all identified and abated asbestos [has been] properly removed from the site.”

A Hilco spokeswoman told Block Club Chicago that tests showed no lead or asbestos in the smokestack, but she didn’t provide the news website with testing reports.

The company did not immediately return requests for comment Saturday.

A cloud of dust spreads across the Little Village neighborhood after a smokestack was imploded.
A cloud of dust spreads across the Little Village neighborhood after a smokestack was imploded.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

At a separate news conference shortly after the implosion, Lightfoot initially said it wasn’t up to the city to change demolition plans.

“Our Department of Public Health and inspectors, upon learning that this was going to happen, were actively engaged with the owners of the property and making sure that there were precautions in place so that there was no more dust, if you will, than a normal demolition,” Lightfoot said.

Wasserman says the city should have stepped in.

“Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Pilsen, Little Village. Air pollution is not stagnant,” Wasserman said. “They have literally just put all this stuff in the air for us to breathe, just so a warehouse can be built.”

Her group’s goal now is to halt further demolition at the site during the pandemic.