Email Strings Show City Officials Warned of Health Risks Before Little Village Demolition Fiasco

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has blown deadlines to disclose internal communications, violating state public records laws. City Hall’s decision-making process prior to the implosion remains shrouded.

A drone video showed how the dust cloud spread from the Crawford demolition site and descended onto Little Village homes. (Alejandro Reyes/YouTube)

This project is a collaboration of seven Chicago newsrooms examining the first year of Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration. Partners are the BGA, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE. It is managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News.

LITTLE VILLAGE — Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her close advisers were warned of potential health risks the day before a botched implosion blanketed the Little Village neighborhood in a thick cloud of dust.

The mayor and more than a half dozen of her advisers were included in email exchanges on the eve of the Easter weekend demolition at the old Crawford Coal Plant, according to a spreadsheet of email subject lines obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

While the subject lines show there was much discussion among top City Hall leaders, the content of many of the emails remains secret. Lightfoot and her office have missed legal deadlines to disclose the emails requested by the Better Government Association and Block Club Chicago. State law required the city to produce the public records beginning April 30.

Lens on Lightfoot

City officials said the delays are because there has been a heavy demand for open records related to coronavirus. The email subject lines were provided as a first step in releasing the emails.

Late Thursday — in response to the Better Government Association and Block Club Chicago announcing an intention to file suit over the open records violations — the Lightfoot administration provided hundreds of pages of emails and texts, some heavily redacted. The communications offered little insight into City Hall’s decision-making in the critical hours before the ill-fated demolition.

Instead, the Thursday production was a hodgepodge of community outreach, traffic schedules and other information unrelated to city decisions that allowed the Crawford demolition to proceed.

Lightfoot’s administration produced none of the communications between the mayor and her top staff prior to the demolition, even though city officials have previously disclosed their existence.

Last month, in response to an open records request, the city released a list of email subject lines about the demolition that revealed Lightfoot and key members of her staff were in the loop on the demolition plans the day before. While the specific contents of those email discussions have not been provided, the subject lines alone provide a timeline of City Hall communications, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the administration’s response.

In a brief interview Thursday, Lightfoot’s top aide acknowledged the demolition was a topic of conversation at City Hall that Friday, but he declined to discuss the specific contents of those communications.

“It just indicates that the advocates have concerns,” Maurice Classen, Lightfoot’s chief of staff, said of one email he received. “The issue is whether or not the contractor themselves completed the work compliant with the permit, which as the mayor and others in our administration have stated, they did not.”

City officials said Thursday they are still working to provide emails responsive to the BGA/Block Club requests.

The only related communications included in City Hall’s production of texts on Thursday seemed to come from outside critics who blamed city officials for allowing the demolition to proceed despite the danger.

“Fact is (the city’s department of public health) and her office had the power to stop this and didn’t,” one such critic wrote to Elise Zelechowski, Lightfoot’s top environmental official on Saturday, after the implosion. “What did they think was going to happen and with no notice in a pandemic?“

City Hall redacted the name of the sender.

Amid the public outcry, Lightfoot and her administration have placed the blame on the companies responsible for the demolition. City Hall fined the developer, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, $68,000 for several pollution violations and Lightfoot immediately issued a stop work order at the site.

The developer wants to convert the 70-acre Crawford site into a distribution warehouse for Target Corp. The developer has apologized for its mistakes and said it is cooperating with the city as officials continue to investigate the incident.

Classen said city officials are working to release the communications, but he declined to discuss the contents of the emails he received. Other city officials on the email strings declined interview requests.

One internal email sent to Lightfoot and copied to Classen at 2:27 p.m. April 10 — the day before the demolition — shows the mayor was told the implosion of the nearly 400-foot-tall coal smokestack was to take place.

The email, titled “Hilco Stack Demolition Tomorrow and EJ Letter,” came as community activists were imploring Lightfoot on social media to stop the demolition, especially because it was planned while the coronavirus crisis was hitting the Southwest Side neighborhood hard. Activists were also concerned because there was little to no notice to neighbors — residents complained there was no public meeting and the area’s alderman didn’t warn them.

According to the spreadsheet of email subject lines provided by the city, Lightfoot did not respond to the email until after the smokestack implosion the following day.

City Hall allowed the demolition with representatives from the city’s Department of Health, Buildings and Fire Department on hand to watch. The smokestack toppled, sending a massive cloud of dust over the area, “dropping dirt and particulate matter across homes, cars, businesses, trees and every other inch of this community,” Lightfoot said.

Little Village streets were covered in dust following demolition of a smokestack at the old Crawford Coal Plant April 11. (MACLOVIO/ INSTAGRAM@MACNIFYING_GLASS)

The demolition sparked an outcry from residents and activists after photos and videos showed a dust cloud consuming residential blocks north of the century-old coal plant, which closed in 2012.

In the aftermath, the email subject lines show dozens of city officials scrambling to provide the mayor with talking points and crafting an official City Hall narrative for an Easter morning press conference.

But the public record about what the mayor knew before it happened — and whether she could have done anything to prevent it — remains undisclosed.

Lightfoot and her staffers have insisted Hilco and its contractor are entirely to blame for the fiasco. They assert city officials unwittingly approved plans they trusted would be executed without incident.

EMAIL TRAIL

The BGA and Block Club attempted to reconstruct the hours before the demolition by comparing the City Hall email subject lines, time stamps, senders and recipients with social media posts, press statements, interviews and media reports.

What it shows is the outcry from community activists about demolition began a full day before the debacle, and their efforts to prevent it extended to some of the top officials at City Hall — including the mayor herself.

Community group Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) executed a full-court press of public outreach, including social media posts and contacting City Hall on Good Friday, the day before the dust cloud hit the mostly Latino, working-class neighborhood.

One email sent to Lightfoot that Friday afternoon was the “Hilco Stack Demolition Tomorrow and EJ Letter” message sent by Zelechowski, the mayor’s acting top environmental official. Copied on the email: Classen, Deputy Mayor Anne Sheahan and the mayor’s Chief of Policy Daniel Lurie.

Environmental justice, often abbreviated as EJ, is a term to describe the pollution burden placed on both poor and communities of color.

City officials won’t say what “EJ letter” Zelechowski was referencing in her email to the mayor, but the Little Village group used social media to alert the community of the demolition and encouraged residents to appeal to Lightfoot, Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) and other state and city officials.

The Little Village group encouraged residents to stress the demolition would increase the dangers of air pollution, which the group said “has been linked to higher coronavirus death rates.”

In an April 10 statement, LVEJO Executive Director Kim Wasserman said she questioned whether the demolition should be considered essential work during a pandemic.

“Little Village residents are highly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 for several reasons, a major one being air pollution,” the statement said. “We are worried that the demolition will further exacerbate public health disparities in our community. Numerous publications have linked air pollution to higher Coronavirus death rates!”

Before Zelechowski sent her email to the mayor, Joanna Klonsky, a political consultant to Lightfoot, emailed five City Hall officials with the subject line “Tweet by LVEJO on Twitter” at 1:23 p.m. that Friday.

Klonsky’s email went to Zelechowski, Lurie and Manuel Perez, managing deputy director for Intergovernmental Affairs. Samantha Fields, senior adviser for Intergovernmental Affairs, and Tiffany Sostrin, deputy director for Intergovernmental Affairs, were also included on the email string.

Wasserman said she left a message for an official in the mayor’s office that Friday morning. Exchanging text messages with the official that afternoon, Wasserman asked her contact, whom she declined to identify, to see if anything can be done to stop the demolition, according to her account.

By 7 p.m., Wasserman received a text from the City Hall contact saying “it’s a done deal” and nothing could prevent the demolition scheduled for the following day. “It’s going to happen,” the text read, according to Wasserman.

The city official said inspectors would be monitoring the situation that morning and would “ensure compliance” and “ticketing” if they aren’t following the demolition guidelines, Wasserman said.

By 10:42 a.m. Saturday, April 11, nearly three hours after the botched implosion, records show Lightfoot responded to Zelechowski, and that began a chain of three dozen emails among almost two dozen city officials over the next two hours, according to the spreadsheet of emails provided by City Hall.

At least 40 emails were sent in a span of six hours in that thread that included Chicago’s Building Commissioner Judith Frydland, Department of Public Health Commission Allison Arwady, Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi and a number of other city officials from various departments. The email participants included more than 15 public relations managers from several city departments, city records show.

Just before 4 p.m. April 11, Lightfoot’s Communications Director, Michael Crowley, sent an email to the mayor with the subject line, “Statement on Hilco.”

That email thread was sent around to numerous city officials over 2-½ hours. Beginning at 5:14 p.m. April 11, Zelechowski started another email thread with the subject line, “Next Steps on Hilco.”

At 6:06 p.m., Zelechowski sent another email with the subject line “Memo to MLL on Hilco Next Steps” to Shehan, Classen and Lurie. “MLL” is a reference to Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

At 6:35 p.m. on April 11, Crowley sent an email, “Planning for presser in Little Village tomorrow,” to 17 city officials, a reference to a planned press conference held by Lightfoot on Easter Sunday morning. Planning for that press conference continued past 10 p.m. that Saturday night, the email records show.

The debacle also prompted emails between city officials and a Hilco consultant.

In a separate email on Easter Sunday, Deputy Mayor for Economic Neighborhood Development Samir Mayekar forwarded an email to a Hilco consultant Eve Rodriguez Montoya, CEO of Rodriguez Media Communications Inc., regarding the city’s response to the implosion, records show.

Rodriguez Montoya previously served as a spokeswoman for the Daley and Emanuel administrations. She was also in contact with public relations officers in the days leading up to the implosion, records show.

Mayekar did not return telephone calls and Montoya declined to comment.

Last week, despite a stop work order in place, city officials quietly allowed a Hilco contractor to resume demolition without notifying residents. The move sparked renewed outrage from community groups and residents, some of whom protested outside Lightfoot’s home.

Protesters march outside Mayor Lori Lightfoot's home Thursday. (Mauricio Peña/Block Club Chicago)

Elected officials, activists and residents called out the city for a lack of transparency on the decision to approve demolition work without notifying neighbors once again.

The mayor moved to postpone the planned work and defended the outreach efforts in a press conference, saying the building was an imminent threat and needed to come down.

During a private community meeting on Tuesday, community leaders chastised city officials for holding a private meeting instead of hosting a meeting open to the general public.

City staffer Perez said a public meeting was forthcoming.

The April 11 implosion has attracted scrutiny from both the city’s Inspector General and the Illinois Attorney General.

City Inspector General Joseph Ferguson has opened an investigation into the implosion and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office filed a lawsuit against Hilco Redevelopment Partners.

In the lawsuit filed last month, Raoul alleged Hilco and its contractors, MCM Management Corp and Controlled Demolition, violated the state’s air pollution regulations when it demolished the smokestack.

“The companies responsible for the demolition of the Crawford Power Generating Station’s smokestack failed to take steps to protect the community from air pollution and compromised air quality at a time when we are urging residents to remain in their communities to minimize the spread of a deadly respiratory disease,” Raoul said.

This story was produced by Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit newsroom focused on Chicago’s neighborhoods, and the Better Government Association, a nonpartisan watchdog organization.

Environmental reporting at the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, President of The Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.