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The Crawford demolition is a mobility justice issue

A person bikes by the Crawford power plant site. Photo: Mia Park

Last Saturday a ten-block radius cloud of brown dust darkened the sunny morning sky in Chicago’s Southwest Side, making it difficult to see, breathe, walk, or ride a ride. The scheduled implosion of the 95-year-old, defunct Crawford Power Generating Station coal-fired power plant smokestack by Hilco Redevelopment Partners went very wrong, according to Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot. Videos of the demolition at 3501 S. Pulaski Road show huge billows of dust rising in waves from the fallen smokestack. The dust floated through several neighborhoods for about 20 minutes, landing on buildings, cars, sidewalks, and people.

In a press conference Sunday, Mayor Lightfoot said the implosion “was supposed to be controlled in a way that kept the dust and debris to the site of the plan." She called the resulting cloud of dust a “clear violation of Illinois pollution standards” and said the city has issued a citation against Hilco that will result in a fine. Hilco plans to use the Crawford site to build what it claims would be the largest available warehouse space in Chicago, at about 1 million square feet, called Exchange 55.

Environmental activists fought for years to see the coal powered Crawford plant shut down under previous ownership and the plant closed in 2012. Even during its destruction, taking place in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the station posed a major health threat to local residents. The dust was reported to have traveled into homes as far away as East Garfield Park, 4.5 miles from the demolition site.

Little Village resident Mike Scheitler lives a mile from the power plant. He said on that Saturday morning he tried walking to buy groceries, but the dust seemed so toxic that he felt safer driving to a fast food restaurant instead. “The dust tasted inorganic and man-made."

“I was crying, because I knew that our people were not protected and no matter what we did, we couldn’t protect everybody,” Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, told CBS Chicago. “So it was heartbreaking to be quite honest with you." She told the Sun-Times that the dust could reach neighborhoods like “Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Pilsen, Little Village. Air pollution is not stagnant…They have literally just put all this stuff in the air for us to breathe, just so a warehouse can be built.”

lda Hernández, a staff member with the Little Village-based community group Enlace Chicago who lives at 30th and Pulaski, said through a translator that she found out about the demolition through social media. “I heard two detonations, one around 7:45 a.m. and another around 8:00 a.m. I went out to dump my trash at about 10 a.m. When I got out, my throat felt dry and I began to cough. After 30 minutes I started to feel a lot of burning in my eyes and they became very red. At about 3 p.m., I started to vomit, but it quickly went away. Just today, the burning and redness of my eyes is fading. I couldn't go to the doctor because of the current pandemic situation.”

The dusty aftermath of the Crawford power plant smokestack demolition in Little Village. Photo by Maclovio/Instagram Macnifying_Glass
The dusty aftermath of the Crawford power plant smokestack demolition in Little Village. Photo by Maclovio/Instagram Macnifying_Glass
The dusty aftermath of the Crawford power plant smokestack demolition in Little Village. Photo by Maclovio/Instagram Macnifying_Glass

LVEJO organizer Edith Tovar said Little Village residents were already anxious about leaving their homes on foot during the pandemic, but the dust cloud took that fear to a new level. As for cycling, she that many residence don’t bike in Little Village due to the scarcity of green space and bikeways. According to Tovar, 44 percent of Little Village land is used for industry, and while there is a stretch of bike lanes on the busy 26th Street retail corridor, the heavy vehicular traffic makes riding there intimidating.

"The plume covered all the cars in dust for at least two blocks south and four blocks east and west,” said 22nd Ward alderman Michael Rodriguez in a statement. "My family lives just five blocks from the Crawford Plant -- we personally share the concerns of all our community members. The health and wellbeing of the residents of Little Village and those immediately impacted by Hilco and their outrageous actions are my priority.”

Rodriguez noted that the timing of the implosion, during a respiratory pandemic, was awful. “The leadership of this company has shown an appalling lack of honesty and honor, especially during this time of COVID-19. It is especially egregious that HILCO would take advantage of such a moment. There is an old expression 'Ask forgiveness not permission.' We do not forgive them. We  are in the process of developing a comprehensive and united community-based response to this outrageous act.”

The city issued a stop work order, started an investigation into the city’s regulatory approval process, and ordered Hilco to conduct a full cleanup, including dust removal. In a statement issued late Sunday afternoon, Hilco’s CEO Roberto Perez said, “We are working cooperatively with the City of Chicago to review yesterday’s demolition event undertaken by our contractor. We are sensitive to the concerns of the community, and we will continue to work in full cooperation.”

In the meantime, Southwest Side residents are having to breath irritating, possibly toxic dust, making walking and biking riskier in a part of town where, in recent years, it has never been easy.

Here are some tips on preventing the spread of COVID-19, and advice for Chicagoans on what to do if you think you may have been exposed to the virus. 

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