Contractor In Little Village Smokestack Fiasco Was Cited In March For Blowing Dust — But City OK’d Demolition Anyway
A contractor working on a smokestack explosion in Little Village that left the neighborhood covered in dust has a history of environmental violations — and was cited by the city just weeks earlier for allowing dust to blow off the site.
Yet, the city still gave developer Hilco Redevelopment Partners the green light to demolish the old Crawford Coal Plant smokestack on Saturday during a respiratory pandemic.
Records show Hilco contractor MCM Management Corp. was cited by the city in March for the blowing dust. In addition, a contractor hired by Hilco was cited by the city last year for dust. And in a third case, a Hilco affiliate along with MCM and its partners were slapped with $3.75 million in penalties in Maryland.
On March 5, a Chicago Department of Public Health official inspected the old Crawford Coal Plant site, 3501 S. Pulaski Road, and saw dust leaving the demolition site, city records show. Inspector John Singler took photos of “airborne emissions,” which were branching out east and west of the site “crossing the public way,” according to an inspection report.
A superintendent with a subcontractor also told the inspector he saw airborne emissions leaving the demolition site in the past month.
MCM, which oversaw the demolition, was slapped with a citation for the blowing dust. One week earlier, the contractor was warned after dust was seen blowing off the site, according to the report.
On Saturday, with little notice and amid a respiratory pandemic, a dust cloud descended on Little Village homes after Hilco demolished a smokestack at the old coal plant. A day earlier, activists begged city officials to halt the demolition, but it went on anyway.
Preliminary testing showed no signs of asbestos in the dust, the city said, but neighbors worry the demolition released unknown toxic materials into the air.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) are blaming the dust disaster on “dishonest” developer Hilco. Hilco is pointing the finger at MCM Management, Hilco’s now-fired contractor, and subcontractor Controlled Demolition Inc.
It’s not clear if or how much Hilco or MCM Management could be fined for the blowing dust incident in March. An administrative hearing is set for May 21, said Cristina Villareal, a Chicago Department of Public Health spokeswoman.
In an email, Villareal said the department “takes construction dust violations very seriously” and approved the smokestack implosion based on the company’s demolition plan, which called for appropriate watering to keep dust and debris contained to the site.
“Clearly, that didn’t happen, and we are diligently working to hold all parties accountable,” Villareal said.
Last year, the city’s Department of Public Health ticketed one of Hilco’s contractors after they received a video from workers showing dust blowing around at the site. The fine was for a nominal amount, “probably less than $10,000,” David Graham, an assistant commissioner with the city’s Department of Public Health, told residents last summer.
It’s unclear from the February 2019 report which contractor was ticketed, but the inspector Singler met with MCM Management, Marine Technologies Solutions and a Hilco consultant.
At that same summer meeting, Graham warned worried residents that “kids and people with breathing problems” should limit their outdoor activity during the demolition.
After the dust emergency Saturday, Lightfoot issued a stop-work order for the site and the city is investigating the incident. Lightfoot promised to hold Hilco responsible and fine the company for failing to follow demolition procedures.
Work was also stopped at the site in December 2019, after a worker died at the site.
A drone video showed how the dust cloud spread from the Crawford demolition site and descended onto Little Village homes.
In a letter obtained by the Better Government Association and Block Club, Lightfoot wrote to Hilco CEO Roberto Perez Wednesday, formalizing demands she previously made in public. Lightfoot asked Perez to clean up dust that blanketed the community, distribute 10,000 masks to neighbors, monitor air quality, conduct soil sampling and complete a report to the city explaining what caused the dust cloud.
In an earlier statement from Hilco, Perez apologized for the “pain and anxiety” neighbors experienced because of the demolition, which occurred during an outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Despite the assurances we received from our implosion expert, the measures that were to be implemented were not sufficient to contain the dust that migrated off-site,” Perez said.
Asked why the developer decided to implode the smokestack during a respiratory pandemic, a spokeswoman for the company declined to comment.
Chicago Department of Buildings spokeswoman Mimi Simon said demolition requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis by multiple city departments.
“In this case, all approving departments coordinated and reviewed the plan submitted to the city,” Simon said.
Past environmental violations
Saturday’s botched implosion isn’t the first time Hilco or its affiliates have worked with MCM Management and something went wrong.
In 2015, a Hilco Global affiliate, Sparrows Point LLC, its partners and MCM Management were fined for environmental violations related to the demolition of old mill buildings in Dundalk, Maryland, according to the Baltimore Sun. Sparrows Point and its partners committed violations that included failing to control stormwater, sediment and erosion, dumping trash and industrial waste, stockpiling scrap tires and handling asbestos improperly, according to the newspaper.
HRE Sparrows Point LLC, Sparrows Point LLC and contractor MCM Management were fined after a multi-year investigation.
In a 2015 agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment, the developers and its contractor settled, and were forced to complete $3.375 million in environmental projects. The companies also were fined $375,000, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The inspections found “bags with tears, allowing discharge of friable asbestos material to the atmosphere" and “open dumping of solid waste and industrial sludge.”
During the same project, nine workers were hospitalized after a roof collapsed at a worksite in Maryland, the Baltimore Sun reported. The workers were dismantling a former steel mill when the roof gave way at the site. Four of the workers were critically injured, according to the report.
The Maryland site now houses operations for Amazon, Under Armour, FedEx, Volkswagen and Harley-Davidson, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
Most recently, in December, a worker plummeted 50 feet to his death at the old Crawford Coal Plant.
The developer now faces three lawsuits related to the Little Village site.
'This isn’t a ‘bad apple’ problem'
After the dust cloud, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and neighbors have called on the developer to abandon its plan to redevelop the site into a 1-million-square-foot distribution center.
Activists in the majority-Latino neighborhood on the Southwest Side also want Lightfoot to rescind the $19.7 million in tax subsidies the city has promised Hilco for the project.
Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said residents who live near industrial areas have no power to reject development that puts their health at risk. That needs to change, she said Thursday.
“This isn’t a ‘bad apple’ problem,” Wasserman said. “Community harm is stemming from one broken, corrupt, racist system. This is a system that cannot be redeemed and these are ethical failures by public servants that cannot be overlooked by our communities any longer.”
Hilco Redevelopment Partners and MCM Management Corp. did not respond to requests for comment.
This story was produced with Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit newsroom focused on Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Environmental reporting at the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, President of The Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.