Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city will get to the bottom of what happened in the demolition of an old coal plant that produced a dust cloud that blanketed Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood over the weekend.
It started Saturday, after a developer demolished one of the old smokestacks connected to the Crawford Power Generating Station on a 70-acre site on the city’s Southwest Side.
Lightfoot said Monday the city will release a more detailed report about the demolition later this week. But she dismissed the idea of yanking a $19.7 million dollar tax break the city previously awarded Hilco Redevelopment Partners.
Here is an edited transcript of what Lightfoot said Monday about the demolition:
Q: Do you think the Inspector General is needed to investigate the demolition? Many aldermen are now calling for one, and what type of cleanup might the company be responsible for? And what fine might the company face?
Lightfoot: OK, I think that’s three questions. If the aldermen want to have the inspector general engaged, have at it. But I am not going to wait for an inspector general report. We started our work literally on Saturday, worked all through the weekend and that work is ongoing. It is my hope that we are going to have at least a preliminary amount of information that we will put out to the public later this week. But if the aldermen want to call for the inspector general investigation, that is certainly their right.
Q: Why didn’t the city listen to warnings from community leaders, many of whom were begging for this implosion not to happen, especially now during COVID-19? And why didn’t you stop it?
Lightfoot: Well I don’t think that was accurate. The local alderman was very much engaged in this — about 10 days out or longer— [the alderman] talked a lot to the various departments that were involved [Chicago Public Health Department, the Building’s Department], as well as a lot of direct contact with the CEO of Hilco. All of us were assured that there is a very specific plan, that there would be water onsite. And that they would be using the water before, during and after to make sure that a dust cloud did not migrate off-site. Obviously, that didn’t happen. My understanding is Hilco has now acknowledged that they did not follow the plan that they had told us, and, I think, told the alderman. If we had known, obviously, that they weren’t going to do what they said they were going to do, we wouldn’t have allowed this to go forward. That’s part of the details we need to dig into.
Q: Should residents have been given far more warning?
Lightfoot: My understanding is that both the contractor and the local alderman did give a heads up to nearby residents in advance of Saturday morning, but again, we’re going to make sure that we understand all of those details.
Q: Do you believe the residents of the area should receive financial reparations at the very least, and periodic health testing to see whether there were any negative ramifications of what happened?
Lightfoot: Well, as I said previously, we’re still assessing the extent of the damage that was done, and we’ll be in a better position to address it once we have a full accounting for what happened. And if there are any residents that are feeling ill as we would always advise, they should seek medical care.
Q: Yesterday, you said the city would pursue regulatory sanctions against Hilco. Could you go into more detail about what kinds of sanctions are on the table?
Lightfoot: Once we understand the magnitude of what happened. I mean, at a minimum, as I said yesterday, they violated a provision in the code that talks about not having particulate matter wander off site. So that’s a basis for citation. We’re now learning more things today. I can’t quantify what those violations are going to be. But we’re looking at every tool in our toolkit, and we will respond appropriately. Suffice it to say, we’re not happy with what happened. It shouldn’t have happened. And there were steps that they could have taken on Saturday to make sure that it didn’t happen. They clearly failed to take those steps, and they will be held accountable to the full extent of the power that we have.
Q: Would you support potential city council action to rescind the $19.7 million tax incentive that Hilco was awarded for the project last year?
Lightfoot: I don’t know that there’s any basis for taking that kind of action. But as I said, we’re reviewing everything. I will say that in my conversation with the CEO of Hilco, he was embarrassed and contrite, which I would have expected and has committed to full cooperation with us to get to the bottom of this … which I appreciate, but of course, that’s a bare minimum of responsibility that he needs to accept.
Q: As a lawyer, do you think that neighborhood residents have a case if they want to sue for damages?
Lightfoot: I’m not going to take that question. That really would be woefully inappropriate for me to respond.
Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @ClaudiaMorell.