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Judge approves $12.25 million Hilco settlement over botched Little Village demolition

Activist says settlement in botched Chicago smokestack demolition is not enough
Activist says settlement in botched Chicago smokestack demolition is not enough 02:48

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A federal judge has signed off on a $12.25 million settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit filed over the botched demolition of a coal power plant smokestack in the Little Village neighborhood in 2020.

The settlement will cover property damage and personal injury claims filed against Hilco after it commissioned the implosion of the smokestack at the shuttered Crawford power plant at 35th and Pulaski on April 11, 2020, coating the surrounding Little Village neighborhood in a massive cloud of dust and debris.

Little Village resident and activist Irma Morales remembers the implosion like it was yesterday.

"One of my sons told me, 'Mom, don't go outside, because it's happening — something in the neighborhood,'" said Morales, "and after that, the implosion."

The implosion led to additional health concerns in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many in the neighborhood reported problems breathing afterward.

"It was terrible," she said. "I have health issues — headaches — and since that time, the headaches are worse."

The implosion and its aftermath also sparked allegations of both government mismanagement and racism — over why it was allowed to happen in a largely working-class, Mexican American community. Residents call it environmental racism.

While Hilco and its contractors continue to deny any wrongdoing in the demolition, they have agreed to pay damages to bring the class-action lawsuit filed against them to a close.

The settlement will cover people who own property or were present within a large segment of Little Village on the day of the demolition. The following boundaries define the affected area: from 33rd Street and Kedzie Avenue, west to 33rd Street and Kilbourn Avenue, north to Kilbourn Avenue and Cermak Road, east to Cermak Road and Ogden Avenue, northeast to Ogden Avenue and California Avenue, south to 26th Street and California Avenue, west to 26th Street and Sacramento Avenue, south to Sacramento Avenue and 31st Street, west to 31st Street and Kedzie Avenue, south to 33rd Street and Kedzie Avenue.

A total of $1 million from the settlement will go to anyone who owned or leased a home or business within that area that was damaged by the dust and debris cloud following the explosion.

Another $7 million will go to anyone who was in the designated area on the day of the demolition.

"It's more about sending a message that people are going to hold you responsible if you go out and do something wrong in the city and you cause damage," said Scott Rausher, an attorney for the class that sued.

According to court documents, more than 21,000 personal injury claims have been deemed to be valid, and each person will get approximately $317 in damages.

Morales does not that per-person sum is anywhere near enough.

"I feel like it's a joke—they're laughing at us," she said. "It's not enough

Three hundred is the only one appointment for the doctor. So it's a joke. They're playing with us."

Still, organizers like Edith Tovar from the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization said the settlement is a step toward accountability.

"It's bittersweet," Tovar said. "This settlement case allowed us to voice our concerns in a courtroom, but it's still not enough for the long-term effects that our residents are bearing right now."

Three named plaintiffs in the case also will get $5,000 each as an incentive reward.

It was not immediately clear how many property owners would be eligible for a share of the $1 million in total property damages.

The remaining $4.25 million from the settlement will go to attorneys' fees and other court costs.

The settlement comes after Marlene Hopkins, who oversaw the botched demolition of the smokestack, was confirmed as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Buildings last week, despite her role in the scandal.

The Chicago Inspector General's office found Hopkins – who was the department's managing deputy commissioner at the time – and other top city officials to be negligent in their handling of the demolition, and that she sought to minimize her role in the process. The inspector general's office recommended Hopkins be disciplined, but she faced no punishment.

Hilco has continued to deny any wrongdoing during the implosion.

CBS 2 reached out to the company again Monday night for comment on the situation, but has not heard back.

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