Illinois fire crews say massive chemical fire is now under control; cause being investigated

ROCKTON, Ill. – Fire crews in northern Illinois say a massive chemical fire that started Monday morning and destroyed a chemical plant is now under control.

The fire's thick, black plume of smoke changed to a dark shade of white Tuesday morning as crews continued their efforts to suppress the fire for a second day. By 5 p.m. Tuesday, Rockton fire Chief Kirk Wilson said the plan had progressed as anticipated and the fire was under control. He also said water runoff from suppression efforts had been contained from spilling into the Rock River.

"As you can see, the smoke plume has dissipated pretty substantially," he said at an afternoon news conference. "At this point in time we have detected no visible runoff into the waterway (that) is just west of Chemtool and to our main waterway called the Rock River."

Deploying U.S. Pumps, an industrial firefighting crew based out of Louisiana, is part of the fire department's "incident action plan" to contain the blaze. The crew is on scene, and they have dug trenches on the west side of Chemtool, a grease and lubricant manufacturer, to block any residual material from flowing into the Rock River.

The Rock River is about 300 meters from the plant.

Wilson said U.S. Pumps has handled many refinery fires throughout the United States and has expertise in spill clean-up. "We want to make sure that we have our situation under control and that we don't compromise the village of Rockton or any of our ... waterways before we start to apply foam to this fire."

Meanwhile, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has referred an enforcement action against Chemtool to the state attorney general's office over the chemical fire and the release of pollutants into the atmosphere.

The EPA wants the company to "provide documentation to the Illinois EPA including the cause of the fire, and an estimate of the nature and amount of any emissions of sulfuric acid mist, particulate matter and other air contaminants emitted as a result of the fire."

Health officials are monitoring the air quality with more than 30 devices around the area of the plant. They've also extended the evacuation of residents in a one-mile radius for another night as they monitor how changing temperatures affect the air quality. Officials said people should wear masks while outside if they are in the evacuation zone or within 3 miles of Chemtool.

"We are doing this out of extreme caution. We have come this far in suppressing a very difficult fire with myriad chemicals," Winnebago County Health Department Administrator Sandra Martell said. "We want to assure our population that they are safe to return to their homes."

Black smoke cloud from the massive industrial fire at Chemtool on Prairie Hill Road darkens the sky around Village Green Park Monday, June 14, 2021, in Rockton.
Black smoke cloud from the massive industrial fire at Chemtool on Prairie Hill Road darkens the sky around Village Green Park Monday, June 14, 2021, in Rockton.

Roughly 150 homes within a one-mile radius of the plant were evacuated as the manufacturing plant went up in flames.

About 70 of the plant's employees were on site at the time of the fire and none of them was injured. One firefighter was treated for respiratory issues at a local hospital and released.

What started the fire remains under investigation, Wilson said. He said they are also still trying to determine if the sprinkler system activated after the fire started.

More: Crews dig trenches, place booms in river to try to curb environmental hazards

'Nobody is out of a job': Chemtool apologizes for Rockton fire, employees still being paid

Bill Snyder — vice president of operations of Lubrizol, the parent company of Chemtool — said that the plant was destroyed but that "right now, nobody is out of a job." The plant employs roughly 200 people.

Lubrizol Corporation is a Berkshire Hathaway Company that owns and operates more than 100 manufacturing facilities, sales and technical offices around the world and has approximately 8,800 employees.

"Obviously, the facility is lost. We're going to support our employees: full pay, full benefits," Snyder said during a news conference. "I would just like to apologize on behalf of the company to the community. It's obviously a very severe impact, and we apologize to the people who had to be evacuated."

Crews will continue to work the scene for days.

"This is going to continue to burn. When we're in the overhaul stage and we're moving debris around, things may flare up," Wilson said. "But we want to assure the public that it is under control. It's not going to go anywhere. It is contained in the area of origin in the building where the fire occurred."

Rockton Village President John Peterson called the loss of the Chemtool building, its operations and possibly jobs "a shame."

"They've been good partners with our village since they got here," he said. "They're a good employer, and they have always been supportive of the village.

"It's still too early to talk about what is going to happen next."

Follow reporter Chris Green on Twitter: @chrisfgreen

This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Illinois chemical fire at Rockton Chemtool plant now under control