Judge OKs $12.25 million class-action settlement over Hilco’s Little Village dust storm

Thousands of Little Village residents are eligible for payments after a federal judge approved a more than $12 million class-action settlement Monday for the botched implosion at a former coal plant that left the community blanketed in dust in 2020.

Hilco Redevelopment and its subcontractors consented to the settlement, which will thwart potential future lawsuits from those residents covered by the agreement.

Planning for the implosion of an almost 400-foot smokestack at the former Crawford power plant failed to contain a massive cloud of dust that rose when the chimney came crashing down.

One resident, Elizabeth Rodriguez, told U.S. District Judge Young B. Kim that her husband still has difficulties breathing four years after the event. She and her family were left out of the agreement because she was just outside of the agreed boundaries for payouts.

Rodriguez said she lives directly across the street from residents eligible for payments for either property damage or personal injury.

Kim told Rodriguez that although she cannot benefit from the agreement, she is not bound by its restrictions, meaning that she can individually sue the companies because she’s not part of the class action.

The Easter weekend implosion was a failure of the developer Hilco, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot said shortly after the incident. Months later, the city’s former inspector general, Joe Ferguson, also pointed to city officials overseeing the demolition, accusing them of being "negligent" and showing "incompetence" in their jobs to protect the public from harm.

The Ferguson report has never been officially released, though the Sun-Times posted it in full early last year.

Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said Mayor Brandon Johnson should officially release the report and explain how any city employees involved with Crawford planning were reprimanded.

In his report, Ferguson recommended David Graham, a public health official, be disciplined for his role, including possibly being fired. Marlene Hopkins, the city’s new commissioner for the Department of Buildings, was also singled out by Ferguson for discipline.

Lightfoot declined to discipline Hopkins. Graham reportedly received a written reprimand.

Johnson’s representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment on the report or the city officials’ roles in the failure.

Hopkins was approved with unanimous City Council support last week. Council members praised the longtime city employee, including Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), who represents Little Village.

More than 20,000 residents are expected to receive payouts.

"Our clients held the corporations responsible," said Scott Rauscher, a lawyer with Loevy & Loevy who represented the residents. "It’s a great result."

Hilco officials declined to comment.

The $12.25 million is considerably larger than penalties Hilco paid to the state or city over the incident.

Still, Wasserman said the amount is "pennies" to a large developer like Hilco.

"Many communities have been gearing up to celebrate Earth Day," Wasserman said. "For our community, it is a continuation of the mourning."