By Kayla Kirshenbaum
Just as residents of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood thought things could not get worse, they did.
A public outcry followed the April 11 demolition of a smokestack of a shuttered coal plant, the Crawford Generating Station in Little Village at 3501 S. Pulaski Rd., which blanketed the community with dust.
The plant shut down in 2012 following years of protests about air pollution that posed risks to the health of local residents who live as close as 50 feet away from the plant.
Hilco Redevelopment Partners, owners of the property, initiated plans to topple the smokestack last September. The firm plans to replace the former coal plant with a one-million-square-foot distribution center. These plans facedongoing protests from environmental groups, public health organizations, and local residents, who argue that the construction of a large warehouse would replace one former source of air pollution with another.
The demolition, approved by the City of Chicago and the Department of Public Health, sent gray smoke and debris flying through a community that was already struggling under the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), said that scheduling a demolition in the current pandemic put the health of local residents at risk.
‘Not what you do’
“This is not what you do during a pandemic,” she said. “Half of our community is considered essential workers, who are really sacrificial workers. My parents live in the neighborhood and they only had 24-hour notice. For days afterward, they had dust and I couldn’t guide them. We feared the worst.”
The Chicago Fire Department, which provided on-site assistance with the demolition, assured residents in a statement that promised, “extensive dust control and mitigation efforts including watering trucks, water cannons, and direct-drive misting systems.” A post from the department’s official Twitter account documented that the department was at the scene providing support. “CFD provided support on demolition of stack at the old Crawford power generation plant near the ship canal and Pulaski now being cleared for new development. Occurred at 8 a.m. April 11. No problems.”
Many, however, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Alderman Michael Rodriguez of the 22nd Ward, argued that there were in fact problems that ensued in the aftermath of the implosion. In a statement released on Easter Sunday, just one day after the demolition, Lightfoot apologized for the consequences of a demolition that she had approved. “What happened yesterday was utterly unacceptable and the City of Chicago will never hesitate to enforce its environmental safety regulations to the fullest extent possible when encountering violations like these, big or small,” Lightfoot said.
Rodriguez added that the blame lies with the contracting company who carried out the demolition. “The finger should be pointing straight at Hilco,” he said.
Hilco, whose primary demolition contractor was MCM Management Corp., scheduled the demolition despite the ongoing coronavirus global pandemic.
After receiving a $19.7.million tax subsidy from the City of Chicago, Hilco toppled the old smokestack as part of the plan for the distribution center. CEO Roberto Perez apologized for causing “anxiety and fear,” and pointed a finger at MCM Management Corp. in a cycle of blame that left residents feeling anxious and afraid.
This was not the first time Hilco left Little Village residents feeling uneasy. In early January of this year, Hilco suspended plans for the plant’s demolition after a worker plummeted to his death at the Hilco-owned site.
“We are going to ask the company to go above and beyond in assuring workers’ safety as well as the community’s safety,” Rodriguez said in January. “As far as I’m concerned, until that can happen, they should not restart demolition.”
Not the first incident
The demolition restarted less than one month later, leaving residents in the dark about what safety protocols had been put in place that warranted work to resume. Wasserman, who has been a leader in the Little Village community for 22 years, said the community was still reeling from what happened in January.
“When the worker died there last year, we were told that we would get reports from them and we still have not,” she said. “To be in that same position and not getting basic information is infuriating.”
Rodriguez and City officials had previously assured residents that they would go to great lengths to assure safe conditions for workers and community residents.
“The Alderman had promised that he would get Hilco to sign off on the Community Benefits Agreement that ensured that the project would not negatively impact the health of residents,” Wasserman explained. “He promised that it would be great for the neighborhood. Hilco was repeatedly told that they had to do certain things, and from day one with this development, there was no protocol in place.”
An essential measure in that protocol was the placement of watering devices that were to have been put in place to contain the debris and smoke. However, it was unclear if any watering cannons and misting systems had actually been put into place after photos from the demolition site’s aftermath did not show any of those dust control systems.
Wasserman believes that the thick gray smoke covering homes and cars told a different story. “We’re still waiting for information on the [watering] cannons,” she explained. “I didn’t see any water equipment. What equipment did they have out there? What water was put out there? We want to see the emails, the communications, the permits. We want to see for ourselves what happened out there.”
For many members of the Little Village community, empty promises from City officials and dashed hopes of new protocols that prioritize the health and safety of its residents is a long-standing tradition.
“This is basic structural racism,” Wasserman said. “The only way to rectify this is to change the structural issues and procedures that caused this.”
Little Village residents, already suffering hardships stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, feared that the demolition may have caused lead in water-pipe service lines to contaminate residents’ drinking water.
“When the smokestack fell, it shook homes,” Wasserman said. “Some of the pipes [in those homes] still have lead in them and it’s possible that folks now have lead in their water. These are things that the City should have anticipated.”
For people already struggling to get masks and food to residents who are unable to leave their homes, this intensified the already existing hardships the community has been suffering through during the pandemic.
“On top of trying to help our people get masks, get food, and survive, now, we are also having to get bottled water to people who live closest to the site,” Wasserman said.
In celebration of Earth Day during the week of April 20, more than 70 cars driven by members of local environmental groups, community organizations, and residents traveled to City Hall in hopes of stronger environmental laws for the future.
“There are a lot more people who are paying attention,” Wasserman shared. “Folks want to see reform.”
Wasserman hopes that Mayor Lightfoot uses this moment as an opportunity for that reform. “I really hope the mayor understands that there is an opportunity here to fix this fundamentally,” she said. “I would hope that she recognizes this as an opportunity to work with black and brown communities to drastically fix these fundamental issues and do some reflection. There are problems and we need to fix them.”
Wasserman is concerned about City officials paying lip-service to these fundamental issues without any change taking place. To those officials, she said, “Your actions speak louder than your words. You have an opportunity to do more than just talk about it. You have an opportunity to fix this problem.”