Amid the spread of coronavirus that affects the respiratory system, an implosion at a coal plant left a Southwest Chicago community covered in a cloud of dust.
On Saturday morning, a development firm conducted a planned demolition of a smokestack at the Crawford Coal plant, sending dust streaming into the Little Village neighborhood immediately adjacent to the plant. According to a zip code-level analysis from the Chicago Tribune, the area around the plant has already seen at least 268 people test positive with covid-19. Studies show that those exposed to air pollution are more vulnerable to the illness, and the plant implosion further raises the risk of respiratory issues in the neighborhood.
Maclovio, a local photographer who asked to be identified only by his first name, was on the scene to shoot pictures of the implosion. He was just the length of a city block away when the smokestack came down.
“It was crazy. I couldn’t breathe,” he told Earther. “I didn’t bring a mask so I just had to make a makeshift one with my jacket over my face... It hurt my lungs for like 20 minutes afterward, and my nose burned.”
Maclovio lives about a mile away from the plant, but others live even closer, in the mostly-Latinx neighborhood of Little Village. In 2012, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and other groups led a successful campaign to have the plant shut down due to the pollutants it emitted. In 2017, Hilco Redevelopment Partners struck a deal to transform the defunct plant into a warehouse and distribution center.
City officials gave the firm permits to conduct the demolition. But on Sunday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the demolition was “utterly unacceptable,” and that the company had been given permission with the expectation that they would better contain dust at the site. She also said the city would provide masks to all nearby residents and announced an order for Hilco to stop all work at the site until a full investigation into the implosion is complete.
Some Little Village residents are looking into filing a lawsuit to hold the development company and city accountable for going forward with the implosion during a pandemic tied to a respiratory illness and any other negative health impacts from the huge dust plume. LVEJO said that locals were “only issued a last minute ‘notice’ the night of April 9 that failed to reach many affected households before the April 11 implosion.” The group called the decision “reckless” and one that, during a pandemic, “may have severe consequences for a community already impacted by respiratory health issues if anything went wrong.”
Now, LVEJO is demanding that Hilco immediately disclose what toxins were in the demolition dust cloud and pay for damages to the community. They’re also demanding that county officials rescind the nearly $20 million tax break they gave Hilco last year.
“Hilco has not been accountable to the community and has dismissed the deep concerns of community leaders about the redevelopment of the site from a formerly polluting coal plant to a future polluting warehousing and distribution facility that would continue to have devastating impacts on public health in an already overburdened environmental justice community,” LVEJO said.