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Stop Work Order Issued For Demolition At Crawford Power Plant After Dust Cloud Blankets Area Following Smokestack Implosion

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Sunday issued a stop work order for any demolition activities at the Crawford Power Plant, after a dust cloud blanketed the Little Village neighborhood the day before following a smokestack implosion at the plant.

The old Crawford power generation plant still stands, but the giant smokestack that towered over the plant for generations is gone now.

Around 8 a.m. Saturday, crews from Hilco Redevelopment Partners performed a scheduled implosion of the smokestack near 35th Street and Pulaski Road, according to the mayor and the Chicago Fire Department.

As CBS 2's Mike Puccinelli reported, the massive explosion left the smokestack toppling over in a cloud of dust.

But the trouble is that dust cloud wasn't supposed to happen. And when it did, it quickly blew into the surrounding neighborhoods.

It's what Kim Wasserman of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization feared would happen.

That's why her organization sent out letters ahead of time urging that the implosion be stopped on the grounds that it was non-essential business under the orders in place statewide for the coronavirus pandemic.

On 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 plant." She said the city was given a "solid plan" that "clearly didn't happen." In a news release, 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.

Mayor Lightfoot was asked Sunday why she didn't put a stop to it before it happened.

"Obviously, we saw what the result was from the demolition, so I feel like it was my responsibility," Mayor Lightfoot said. "As I said before, this wouldn't be acceptable in my neighborhood. It's not acceptable here. So I wanted to come out and make sure I spoke to the residents of Little Village."

But Wasserman said she thought the mayor's response was too little, too late.

"It's a day too late. The fact of the matter is, this press conference should have been two days ago saying this demolition wasn't going to happen," Wasserman said. "It should have been that we care more about people being able to survive during this pandemic than letting this business as usual happen."

The Fire Department provided support for the demolition, and at the time tweeted there were "no problems," but a photographer later shared pictures of a huge dust cloud blanketing nearby streets.

The photographer, who asked to be identified only as Maclovio, said in an Instagram post that he got caught in a dust cloud that covered a six-block radius.

"That is what environmental racism looks like, when you don't think a dust plume going for a ten block radius is a problem," Wasserman said.

the CFD later removed the tweet and replaced it with one calling the excessive dust unacceptable.

"I'm here to say to the city, this community and to Hilco and controlled demolition that this is absolutely and utterly unacceptable," Lightfoot said Sunday. "It's unsafe and unsanitary. I wouldn't tolerate this in my neighborhood, and we're not going to tolerate it here either. I know the significant health disparities that Little Village faces, so to see a dust cloud from a demolition roll across homes and businesses is simply outrageous."

The Chicago Department of Public Health is working to provide masks to residents in the immediate area to protect against inhalation of dust. CDPH has also launched an investigation and will be testing the air quality at the site and in the adjacent neighborhood, and said the dust will be sampled for harmful minerals like asbestos.

The Department of Buildings is also halting any additional non-emergency demolitions in the city for the remainder of the week while the city reviews procedures for permitting and monitoring of the implosion process. In a release, the city said a stronger procedure will be coordinated to provide guidelines for a stricter process to avoid a similar result during future demolitions.

Lightfoot also said air quality concerns are greater due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"At a time when people are supposed to find safety and security in the sanctity of their homes, they're instead facing this," she said.

The mayor said the city had received assurances from Hilco Redevelopment Partners that the dust would be controlled.

"I want residents to know that I understand your anger," Lightfoot said. "I am extremely angry myself that this happened."

Wasserman was angry but also sad.

"I was crying, because I knew that our people were not protected and no matter what we did, we couldn't protect everybody," she said, "so it was heartbreaking to be quite honest with you."

She said lives were potentially put at risk.

The Crawford power plant is being torn down to make way for a $100 million, 1 million square foot logistics facility that will be known as "Exchange 55."

On behalf of Hilco Development Partners, chief executive officer Robert Perez released this statement: "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."

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