Seven months before the botched implosion of a former coal plant smokestack left Little Village smothered in dust over Easter weekend in 2020, a Chicago city employee warned his boss that the plans to implode the tower could cause “almost cataclysmic” harm.
“Make sure you have plenty of water available,” then-director of environmental inspections John Kryl wrote, saying “saturating” the ground prior to the implosion was imperative. “No matter how much water you think you need, it probably won’t be enough. The dust from an event like this is almost cataclysmic. Be prepared.”
Kryl, who has since retired, sent the warning to Dave Graham, an assistant City Hall commissioner of public health, in an email in September 2019, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
It’s unclear whether Graham — who, through a spokesman, declined to comment — responded to Kryl.
Kryl couldn’t be reached.
“Document weather data, including wind direction and speed, and prepare to postpone the drop if the event will direct a large amount of dust toward the river or any heavily populated area,” Kryl wrote. “Notify the residents of the area well in advance so they’re not caught unaware. They may want to be somewhere else when the drop occurs.”
Another health department employee — John Singler, a senior environmental inspector — forwarded Kryl’s message to a consultant for the company overseeing the plant’s demolition, Hilco Development Partners.
“It continues to be heartbreaking,” Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said after being told of the city inspector’s warning of possible dire consequences from the implosion. “I can’t help but cry. How much do you have to not care about the people in our neighborhood?”
Of the steps that Kryl urged be taken, Wasserman said, “Not a single one of these things was done.”
The Kryl email is one of hundreds of City Hall internal communications obtained by the Sun-Times under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. They provide detailed accounts of the planning prior to the Crawford coal power plant implosion, which has been criticized as having been woefully inadequate.
In January, City Hall’s Office of Inspector General released a brief summary of an investigation into the problems with city officials’ planning leading up to the giant dust storm that was created when a nearly 400-feet-tall smokestack at the Crawford plant came crashing down on April 11, 2020, to make way for a one-million-square-foot warehouse that’s now leased to Target at 3501 S. Pulaski Rd.
The internal City Hall watchdog agency recommended that three city workers be disciplined, including the possible firing of the public health official who was in charge of protecting the safety of nearby residents.
The Chicago City Council and community groups have called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to release the still-secret report, but Lightfoot has refused to do that.
More than two years after the botched implosion, people who live in the neighboring community want answers from Lightfoot and City Hall.
“We still get calls from people who say, ‘I still have a cough,’ ” Wasserman said. “There’s no accountability.”
Wasserman — who had asked city officials to hold off on the demolition of the plant out of health and safety concerns — is among community members who have called on Lightfoot to release the inspector general’s report.
Before the demolition, Wasserman helped lead a campaign to shut down Crawford, which, along with the nearby Fisk plant in Pilsen, was one of two coal-burning power sources operating in Chicago until 2012.
City officials had promised that community residents would have a say in what replaced the polluting plant.
Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration decision to allow Hilco to develop a large warehouse on the former power plant property that now sees hundreds of diesel trucks go in and out every day drew widespread outrage in Little Village.
Other groups that have urged Lightfoot to release of the secret report include Unete La Villita and Mi Villita Neighbors.
Lightfoot administration officials say they can’t legally release the investigative report, a claim Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), who represents Little Village, and community members dispute.
No city workers ended up being fired. One — identified in the inspector general’s summary only as an assistant commissioner of the city’s health department — was given a written reprimand.
Since the April 2020 debacle, Lightfoot has blamed the botched implosion on developer Hilco and its contractors. Hilco paid $19,500 in city fines and settled a lawsuit with the state for $250,000. A related entity that owned the land and two contractors also were fined.
Hilco officials didn’t respond to efforts to reach them for comment.
Andrew Buchanan, a city health department spokesman, said city officials had “serious concerns” about the implosion and repeated past statements that Hilco and its contractors failed to follow a plan to control the dust.
“We have full confidence in the many devoted public servants who attempted to anticipate and prevent negative impacts on the Little Village community,” Buchanan said. “More than discipline for individuals, the structural changes now in place will ensure that we are acting collectively to protect the environment and community members going forward.”
The summary of the inspector general’s report, which was the last issued under former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, said the city public health assistant commissioner’s “abdication of responsibility and willful bureaucratic negligence allowed the demolition contractor to proceed unchecked with minimal dust mitigation measures, including a failure to soak the ground prior to the implosion.”
That assistant commissioner demonstrated “incompetence or inefficiency in the performance of the duties of the position,” the summary said, and had acted “negligently or willfully” in regard to failing to properly take responsibility for protecting the safety of nearby residents and property.
In addition to the health official, the Ferguson report recommended that two building department employees be disciplined but not fired.
Ferguson’s summary noted that the city Buildings Department “is the regulatory anchor point for demolition actions, particularly demolitions involving the use of explosives, as occurred here.”
It said the two city workers from that agency should face disciplinary measures, but the Lightfoot administration decided not to impose any punishment on them.
Some city rules were modified after the Crawford plant implosion.
Marlene Hopkins, then-managing deputy commissioner for the buildings department, was a point person for City Hall for the implosion, and Jorge Herrera was the city’s chief building inspector at the time, the newly released emails show.
Ferguson didn’t name Graham, Hopkins or Herrera in his summary.
All declined to comment.
Ferguson’s report agreed with city officials’ contention that Hilco and its demolition contractors were to blame for the dust cloud that was spewed but also pointed to what he described as failures by the health official.
“The resulting particulate dust cloud occurred despite warnings — 213 days before — that the ‘dust from an event like this is almost cataclysmic,’ ” Ferguson wrote.
Rodriguez, who sponsored a Chicago City Council resolution calling on Lightfoot to release the Crawford report, said it was “morally reprehensible” that “red flags” about the plan were raised and yet additional safeguards weren’t required by city officials.
And he still wants the mayor to make public the inspector general’s full findings.
“They need to release the report,” Rodriguez said.