Pat Quinn demands that Lightfoot release Little Village implosion report

Citing a Sun-Times report, the former governor, who’s exploring a run for mayor, says an inspector general’s investigation into the botched 2020 smokestack implosion shouldn’t be kept secret.

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A city employee who declined to be identified accepts a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot from former Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday. In the letter, Quinn demands that the mayor release publicly the full report that has been completed on the 2020 smokestack implosion that covered parts of in Little Village in a thick cloud of dust.

A city employee who declined to be identified accepts a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot from former Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday. In the letter, Quinn demands that the mayor release publicly the full report that has been completed on the 2020 smokestack implosion that covered parts of in Little Village in a thick cloud of dust.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Former Gov. Pat Quinn, who is considering a run for mayor, called on City Hall to release an inspector general’s report on the botched 202 implosion of a power plant smokestack that left Little Village smothered in dust.

Quinn wanted to hand-deliver a letter Monday to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Corporation Counsel Celia Meza at City Hall, seeking the public release of an investigative report that was completed last year but which Lightfoot’s administration has kept secret. The Chicago City Council and Little Village community activists have made similar demands.

But the former governor got no farther than the lobby, denied permission to go upstairs because he didn’t have an appointment. Someone came to the lobby to get the letter.

At issue is an investigation done by the city’s Office of Inspector General that found three city officials should be disciplined, including one possible firing, for neglecting to safeguard the community when an almost 400-foot chimney at the former Crawford coal-burning power plant came crashing down, covering the Little Village neighborhood in a giant cloud of dust Easter weekend in April 2020. No employees were fired for the debacle, but one public health official received a written reprimand, according to a short summary of the report released in January.

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Lightfoot spokesman Cesar Rodriguez said Monday that, by law, the city cannot release the full report. Quinn disputes that assertion.

In his letter, Quinn said state and city law is clear: The city can release such reports “in cases which implicate a possible violation of criminal law and are a matter of high public interest.”

The letter also said under the state’s constitution, “each person has the right to a healthful environment and each person may enforce this right against any party, governmental or private, through appropriate legal proceedings.”

Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks to reporters in the City Hall lobby on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks to reporters in the lobby of City Hall on Monday.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

In an interview, Quinn said he is still “exploring” a possible run for mayor. The report should be released, he said, because “when that’s done, people will see how wrong the city operated in the runup to the demolition” of the Crawford plant.

“I don’t think there’s any justification for the mayor and the corporate counsel hiding the full inspector general report,” Quinn said.

The person who led the investigation agreed.

“What the governor is highlighting is that there is a legal argument for releasing the report,” former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson said in an interview. “If the mayor says ‘no,’ she should explain, and it would then be up to the City Council either to explain why the mayor is wrong or fix the law.”

The move also signals if Quinn runs, the former Democratic governor will campaign on environmental protection, especially as it relates to low-income communities of color already suffering from poor air quality, such as Latino-majority Little Village.

The Crawford implosion followed protests from residents who didn’t want the former coal plant site redeveloped into a million-square-foot warehouse for Target, bringing in hundreds of diesel trucks a day.

Quinn said he believes the city should reinstate the Department of Environment, which was dismantled under Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a cost-savings move. Lightfoot campaigned on re-establishing an environmental department but, once in office, said the city couldn’t afford it.

Earlier this month, the Sun-Times reported a city official had warned before the implosion that without proper planning, it could cause “almost cataclysmic” harm to the community.

Quinn referenced the article in his letter, saying “the warnings and safeguards were completely ignored.” City officials have disputed such claims.

“This serious environmental catastrophe is a matter of high public interest and a possible criminal law violation in light of the city’s grossly negligent or willful failure to properly take responsibility for protecting the health and safety of the residents and property of Little Village before the Crawford smokestack demolition,” Quinn wrote in his letter.

In a statement, Rodriguez defended the city’s response to the implosion, which included millions of dollars of fines against developer Hilco Redevelopment Partners and its contractors, and new rules related to environmental protections around demolitions. He called the implosion “an unacceptable event” that was the fault of the companies.

Quinn’s letter is also an open-records request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The Sun-Times previously filed an open-records request with the city for the report. That request was rejected last year.

Contributing: Brian Rich

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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