Rockton Chemical Plant

Why Firefighters Stopped Putting Water on Rockton Chemical Plant Fire

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As a fire continues to burn at a chemical plant in suburban Rockton, officials say that they have stopped putting water on the fire, fearing that run-off could make its way into a nearby river and threaten drinking water supplies.

Kirk Wilson, chief of the Rockton Fire Protection District, says that firefighters stopped putting water on the fire, fearing that water run-off could carry chemicals into the nearby Rock River.

“We stopped some of the water suppression and some of the fire suppression, and we went ahead and let the product burn off due to the fact that the Rock River sits just west of Chemtool, (approximately) 500 yards away,” he said. “We were extremely concerned that would turn into an environmental challenge later on down the road.”

Officials say that the fire could potentially burn for several days due to the chemicals inside the plant, but that the blaze is contained to one part of the facility at this time, minimizing the risk of it spreading.

John Kim, director of the Illinois EPA, says that the concerns about water run-off are understandable, and that field staff are working to ensure that water supplies remain safe.

Health officials in Winnebago County are asking everyone within three miles of the fire at Chemtool in Rockton to put their masks back on because of particulate matter in the air. NBC 5's Charlie Wojciechowski reports.

"There was a decision made to pull back on the use of water out of concern for runoff which very understandable and that does go a long way towards that," he said. "There was some water used, and we also share the concern that nothing is going to be adversely impacting the Rock River. So we do have field staff that will be working with contractors retained by the company to go out to take a look and see if there is any runoff to conduct some sampling to make sure that we don't have anything getting off site, or anywhere near a potable water supply, so that we're not going to have that kind of concern."

According to officials, the Chemtool plant is the largest manufacturer of engine lubricants in the country. It participates in a so-called “Tier II” program, meaning that it must file annual reports on the hazardous materials stored on site. The report allows state and federal authorities to track and enforce rules related to the storing of those materials, and helps firefighters determine the best course of action in tackling a fire inside such a facility.

According to Alicia Tate-Nadeau, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Association, the plant stores chemicals that are “caustic” in nature.

“There are a number of different chemicals that are in there. One of those is lead. Others (include) antifreeze, nitrogen, sulfuric acid and a few others,” she said.

Kim says that state officials are taking extra caution to protect residents while the fire burns, and that the agency is committed to undertaking any and all remediations that will be required during, and after, the fire.

“We are making sure that once conditions have stabilized, that all the proper steps are taken so that what remains is going to be properly addressed if there is any type of remediation that’s needed,” he said.

Kim says that the Illinois EPA is working with federal officials to help respond to the fire, and its aftermath.

Local officials have ordered an evacuation of homes within one mile of the chemical plant, but there is no word on when residents will be able to return home.

“I understand that many people have questions on when they’re going to be able to go home. Right now, we don’t have that answer,” Wilson said. “We’re continuing monitoring the situation and doing air quality checks in the surrounding areas in downtown Rockton and over towards Roscoe.”

Evacuated residents are urged to go to Roscoe Middle School, according to officials.

Officials say the fire started after approximately 7 a.m. All employees of the plant were able to escape, but the fire continued to spread, forcing officials to order the evacuation of residents who lived within one mile of the plant.

Residents who live within a mile of Chemtool in Rockton had little time to think when they were asked to immediately leave their homes on Monday morning after a fire broke out at the chemical plant. NBC 5's Chris Hush tells their story.

Officials expressed concern that airborne particulates could pose a breathing hazard, and encouraged residents within the evacuation zone to wear facial coverings.

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