Little Village’s Kim Wasserman is still struggling to talk about what happened just after 8 a.m. on April 11, 2020.
The executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization watched with horror as a cloud of dust covered six blocks in Little Village after crews botched the chimney demolition at the former Crawford coal-fired power plant just as the coronavirus pandemic began Slam Chicago.
“I cry every time,” Wasserman told WTTW News. “To say it was traumatic is an understatement.”
With a citywide outcry fueled by images of the massive cloud of dust swirling through the predominantly drone-captured Latino West Side neighborhood, the disaster forced environmental justice high on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s agenda.
“It made clear the dispensability of black and brown bodies in Chicago,” said Wasserman, who has been working against the systemic environmental racism that has made residents of the south and west sides sicker and poorer than those on the Chicago side for nearly 23 years Chicago side live north side and downtown.
The moment Little Village was covered in dust, it was also the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was soon to get out of hand. Wasserman said it was incredible that city officials approved an implosion permit during a respiratory pandemic.
“It really was the cherry on top to tie it all together,” said Wasserman. “It added another layer to the trauma.”
Exactly a year after the crews toppled the chimney, Chicago has several new laws and regulations on its books designed to improve air quality on the south and west sides of Chicago. This data is much more polluted than the air in wealthier areas.
However, environmental justice advocates say these new laws and regulations won’t change the system that allows industry to pollute neighborhoods with Black and Latin American Chicagoans.
Activists and leaders are working to harness the new dynamic of the environmental justice movement to deny General Iron permission to operate a metal scraper on the southeast side after it ceases operations in Lincoln Park.
“General Iron is the next battle,” said Wasserman. “It is exhausting.”
Ald. Mike Rodriguez’s 22nd division houses the coal-fired power plant, which closed in 2012 and is intended to serve as an e-commerce warehouse for the big box retailer Target.
Rodriguez said the botched chimney implosion made it impossible for Chicagoans to continue ignoring the differences that residents on the south and west sides stare in the face every day as they cope with higher rates of asthma and respiratory disease-related air pollution.
“People were called to action,” said Rodriguez. “The cat is out of the pocket.”
The images of the colossal cloud of dust that were all over social media and TV news “made people believe what we were saying,” Wasserman said.
Wealthy Chicagoers could no longer choose to wear “blinders” at the expense of the environmental racism that afflicts Black and Latin American Chicagoans, Wasserman said.
Officials respond with fines, lawsuits, and new rules
Following the botched implosion, Lightfoot said Hilco Redevelopment Partners “completely failed” to protect the community and described the incident as “outrageous and unacceptable.” Hilco officials apologized.
Even when the results, released by the Chicago Department of Public Health, found the dust did not endanger the health of residents, the city of Hilco hit 16 quotes related to the implosion, which came with fines of $ 68,000.
Lightfoot also imposed a six-month moratorium on implosions and used that time to develop new rules for the seldom-used demolition method, which requires community meetings to take place before permits can be issued, as well as increased surveillance while work is being carried out by various city authorities.
Rodriguez said these new regulations would prevent another implosion from catching Chicagoans off guard. Little Village residents had noticed less than 24 hours in advance that the chimney had fallen – something Rodriguez deeply regretted.
In May, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul sued Hilco and the company’s general contractor, MCM Management Corp. and Controlled Demolition Inc., claiming they had not taken “reasonable steps to protect the community from the resulting cloud of particles” by making the water-watered site from demolition.
The lawsuit alleged that the dust contained mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants. Eventually, the companies agreed to pay $ 370,000 to settle the lawsuit. Funding went to the Access Community Health Network, the largest state-qualified health center in Little Village.
The city stopped demolition until June, when Hilco was allowed to resume work after officials warned that what was left after the implosion could threaten drivers on Pulaski Road. The demolition was completed in July due to objections from residents of Little Village.
Focus shifts to the town hall
The crisis that engulfed the chimney implosion was especially vexing to Wasserman and other environmental justice activists, who fought to keep Hilco’s former coal-fired power plant from being turned into an e-commerce warehouse that sends hundreds of diesel-spewing trucks through their neighborhood would.
The fact that Hilco’s project will benefit from a $ 19.7 million property tax break over the next 12 years to help create new industrial jobs and repurpose vacant lots added to the insult of Wasserman and Rodriguez’s injury, who spoke out in front of him against the tax break was elected to the city council in 2019.
Rodriguez originally hoped to force Hilco to give up the tax break, but city lawyers said doing so would spark a lawsuit the city likely wouldn’t win.
Instead, the city council unanimously approved a measure to give Chicago officials the power to remove multi-million dollar tax incentives from companies that “betray the public’s trust” after a series of public hearings.
Wasserman called this measure “reactionary” and “too little, too late”.
Bigger problems remain, new battles loom
Rodriguez said he remained frustrated that his efforts to tighten regulations on developments that have the potential to pollute Chicago’s neighborhoods were “watered down” after corporate groups warned city officials the move would deter businesses To create jobs in Chicago.
Although Lightfoot originally advocated a measure that would have tightened the rules on warehouses, that provision was deleted in the final version, which the city council passed by 38-12 votes – and made law in Chicago without the support of prominent environmental groups.
While the new law contains some good measures, it is “greenwashing” by the same city officials who signed the permit for the implosion in April 2020, Wasserman said.
The past year has only served to deepen the environmental groups’ lack of confidence in city officials and sparked efforts to pass new state laws to protect and clean up the environment in Chicago, Wasserman said.
Wasserman said she has no doubt that the outrage caused by the implosion of the Crawford Works chimney is fueling efforts to prevent the city from allowing General Iron to operate on the southeast side.
Chicago Department of Health officials have yet to give final approval for the metal scraper to begin operating. According to company employees, this has no environmental impact.
The possibility of the metal scraper moving from Lincoln Park to the already heavily polluted southeast side is an example of “direct environmental racism,” Wasserman said, adding that she had mixed feelings about the newly-fought battle.
“It’s at the expense of our community,” Wasserman said. “At an enormous price for our community. It’s just a fucking shame. “
Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]