Lightfoot Defends City’s Actions on Little Village Smokestack Demolition: ‘I Don’t Believe We Were Negligent’

During a virtual town hall as part of “Lens on Lightfoot” event, mayor maintains developer is at fault but vows such an incident won’t happen again.

Residents and activists have criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration’s handling of the demolition of a smokestack at the former Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village. (Mauricio Peña/Block Club Chicago)

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.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday defended the city’s actions earlier this year that allowed the controversial demolition of a former coal plant smokestack in Little Village and said her administration has taken the proper steps so that “anything like this can’t happen again.”

Months after the implosion caused some parts of the Southwest Side neighborhood to be enveloped in dust amid a respiratory pandemic over Easter weekend, Lightfoot strongly condemned the developer behind the project, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, for its “utter fail” to live up to the commitments it made to the city.

“If Hilco had done what it promised to do in getting the permit then we wouldn’t be talking about it right now — and you wouldn’t know anything about it; neither would I,” Lightfoot said. She added, “The fault lies in the developer.”

Lightfoot’s comments came as part of a virtual town hall where the mayor faced questions from reporters of seven Chicago newsrooms participating in a yearlong series about Lightfoot’s administration called “Lens on Lightfoot.” The event was sponsored by one of the news organizations, The TRiiBE, and the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Lens on Lightfoot

Earlier this year, the mayor and Ald. Michael Rodriguez, whose 22nd Ward includes Little Village, faced criticism for not stopping the implosion at the old Crawford Coal Plant. Before the demolition occurred, activists called on the mayor’s office to stop the work, noting it was scheduled in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic that has hit Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately hard.

The city knew the project was not without problems. A contractor working on the implosion was cited by the city just weeks earlier for allowing dust to be blown off the site. Work was also stopped at the site in December 2019 after a worker died.

While infuriated residents blamed the developer who plans to turn the site into a warehouse for Target, they also cast blame on the city and said they received little notice about the impending implosion.

Lightfoot has defended the city’s actions before and on Tuesday reiterated her defense and cast total blame on the developer.

“I don’t believe we were negligent,” she said. “We learned a lot from that experience, but really the fault lies — and I think that’s been demonstrated by everyone who has looked at this — the fault lies in the developer for not doing what it committed to do.”

Lightfoot also said her administration changed the permitting process “so we have real accountability in a way that we didn’t have before under the old city rules.”

In the days after the implosion, Lightfoot ordered work at the site to be stopped, saying a “full investigation” was needed before work could resume. She also issued $68,000 in fines against Hilco and its contractors.

Asked if she regretted the city not stopping the demolition amid a respiratory pandemic, Lightfoot said, “hindsight is always 20/20.” But she said that in response to the implosion, the city made sure the neighborhood was tested for air quality and that residents had access to health care clinics and health professionals in the event they were experiencing any respiratory issues.

“We worked diligently to make sure that any adverse health...consequences were addressed and mitigated,” Lightfoot said.

In May, the city quietly approved demolition work to resume at the site and issued a construction permit, a move residents and environmental activists said blindsided them.

That same month, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul sued Hilco, alleging the company and its contractors, MCM Management Corp and Controlled Demolition, violated the state’s air pollution regulations when it demolished the 378-foot smokestack. The lawsuit is ongoing.

The Chicago demolition by Hilco was followed in July by another incident in which the company imploded part of a coal plant in Jersey City. Residents there said the company or the city didn’t warn them of the implosion and were still awaiting answers as to what contaminants were in the cloud of the smoke.

In the wake of the implosions, a chorus of Chicago neighbors and activists have called on the developer to abandon its plans and called on the city to rescind a $19.7 million tax break issued to the company. Neighbors and activists have also said the 1-million-square-foot warehouse would inundate the neighborhood with more diesel pollution from trucks entering and exiting the site.

The plans have renewed concerns over the concentration of polluting industries on the West and South Sides. Residents and environmental activists oppose warehouses because they draw heavy traffic and air pollution, yet many warehouses are being built in areas that already have the greatest exposure to toxic air pollution and other environmental health hazards in the city.

Activists have called for the city to reform its zoning rules to require greater oversight and tougher environmental and safety rules before projects are approved.

While running for mayor, Lightfoot promised her administration would crack down on polluters in part by bringing back a city department of environment that was dismantled due to budget cuts by Rahm Emanuel when he was mayor and caused pollution inspections to drop. But after she was elected, Lightfoot scaled back her plans and instead created an “office of environment and sustainability” initially staffed by just one person with no enforcement powers.

On Tuesday, Lightfoot said the city is “not yet able” to fully create a department, due to the continued budgetary restraints, but said the city is making progress.

“We are working hard to make sure that we are responsive and that we have a robust plan taking on environmental challenges, particularly climate change and also reducing our carbon footprint and I think we are well on our way,” Lightfoot said.