Little Village residents sue over demolition dust

By Kevin Beese Staff Reporter

Residents of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood say a plume from the Easter morning demolition of the Crawford Coal Plant may have put their health at even greater risk during the coronavirus pandemic. A federal class-action suit has been filed on residents’ behalf. (Court document

Residents in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the developer and other companies for what they called the botched demolition of the Crawford Coal Plant.

The plant’s demolition subjected the community to a massive dust plume over Easter weekend.

The class-action suit contends that “environmental racism” has long plagued Little Village, a predominantly Mexican American community on the city’s Southwest Side. The legal action noted pollution of the Little Village neighborhood and residents occurs at a much higher rate than most neighborhoods in Chicago.

“It is an incident that would not have occurred in the white neighborhoods on the North Side of Chicago,” the lawsuit contends.

Defendants in the lawsuit are Hilco Redevelopment, HRE Crawford, Morgan/Harbour, Heneghan Wrecking & Excavating, Controlled Demolitions, V3 Companies, Commercial Liabilities Partners and Marine Technology Solutions.

The allegations in the lawsuit further state that the defendants “did not plan or carry out any similarly dangerous demolitions in predominantly white neighborhoods.”

Further stressing the race factor, the lawsuit says, “If plaintiffs’ community had been predominately white, plaintiffs and class members would have been treated in the same manner as their predominantly white neighbors in Chicago and this incident would not have occurred.”

The class-action suit cites a 2002 Harvard Public School of Health study that linked the pre-existing pollution in the community to “an abnormal and large increase in premature deaths, increased emergency room visits, and asthma attacks.”
Led by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, residents said they have long fought against the use of their community as a toxic dumping ground, successfully campaigning to force the closure of the Crawford Coal Plant, which was one of just two coal-fired power plants in the country operating in an urban neighborhood.

Besides producing lung-clogging dust, activists contend, coal-burning plants notoriously generate tons of radioactive material each year, lung-destroying sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and mercury and lead which are unsafe at any levels.

Now residents in the area fear that a plume of those materials as well as asbestos has been rained down on their community through the plant’s demolition.

“The closure of the Crawford Coal Plant was supposed to represent the end of a major and deadly source of pollution in the neighborhood,” the suit contends. “Instead, the defendants’ actions have caused the very chemicals from the Crawford Coal Plant that LVEJO and the Little Village community worried about for years to blanket residents, homes, businesses and open spaces.”

The suit demands an immediate clean-up of the homes, businesses and public areas of the community, providing particulate masks to all residents, high-efficiency particulate air filters for their homes, thorough testing and sampling of the air and dust by independent scientific monitors, alternative housing for residents during the duration of the cleaning process, and a third-party assessor to evaluate and provide estimates of the property damage and decrease in property values caused by the “reckless” demolition.

“The demolition and disposal (were) an unmitigated disaster,” the lawsuit contends.

The plaintiffs contend that the defendants “intentionally misled residents, cut corners that prevented the demolition from occurring safely, and then proceeded with their plainly unsafe demolition and disposal during Easter weekend in the middle of a pandemic.”

Named plaintiffs in the class action suit are Jose and Antonio Solis, and Juan Rangel.

Jose Solis said he witnessed the plume as it rushed toward and enveloped his home. As a former worker at the Crawford plant, he said he was aware of the toxic debris being spread by the cloud, and for days after the demolition he kept his children from going outside for fear that they would become sick.

Solis said particles resembling ash were so dense that for more than 10 minutes after the demolition he could hardly see outside, and a thick residue was left in and around his home.

Solis lives with his elderly father, Antonio, who besides his age, already had health issues that put him at greater risk of harm during the pandemic. Now the Solis family is concerned that Antonio has been put at even greater risk by the dust cloud.

Antonio Solis said the dust was so widespread that he felt it in his mouth — inside his home.

The lawsuit contends the “demolition was done with blatant disregard for the safety of the community.”

Rangel has been involved in the Little Village community for more than three decades. On April 11, after visiting his brother who had fallen ill with the coronavirus, he returned to his home in Little Village to find that the demolition dust cloud had coated his entire block.

The lawsuit contends that the air quality index in the area went from 50 (good) to 155 (unhealthy) within hours of the Easter morning demolition.

“Community members already grappling with the fear of an unprecedented pandemic have been burdened with the uncertainty that their health may now be in even greater danger than before,” the lawsuit states.

The suit contends that Little Village residents are constantly worrying that their health has been impaired, and that their lives may be cut short due to the demolition dust and what particles are in that dust.

“What happened in Little Village would be unconscionable in normal times,” said Steve Art of Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law, the law firm filing the suit. “Burying a neighborhood in a toxic dust cloud during a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus — on Easter weekend when many residents were outdoors — leaves us at a loss for words. We join the rest of Chicagoans in condemning the reckless misconduct of the defendants named in (the) lawsuit. And we are proud to represent members of the Little Village community in their continuing quest for environmental justice.”

Art has asked for a jury trial in the case.

In addition to Art, the Solises, Rangel and the potential class are represented by Jon Loevy, Michael Kanovitz, Scott Rauscher, Cindy Tsai, Julie Goodwin, Danielle Hamilton, Renee Spence, and John Hazinski of Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law.