Chemical Plant Fire Rages for Second Day, Fire Fighters Protect Local River

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A Rockton, Illinois Chemtool Inc. plant caught fire Monday and burned into Tuesday, prompting mandatory evacuations for 150 homes in a one-mile radius of the plant. Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson says that the department expects the fire to rage for several days. Their priority is to prevent the facility’s oil-based lubricants from running off into the nearby Rock River.

The main thing we don’t want is an environmental nightmare to occur,” said Chief Wilson. But as officials wait for the fire’s fuel to burn out, citizens are worried about their health and their homes.

Why This Matters: Chemical plant explosions like this one risk the health of humans and the environment. Already, living near chemical factories like Chemtool Inc.’s can put residents, often disproportionately BIPOC residents, at risk of cardiac, neurological, and other health complications. Runoff from these plants can damage local ecosystems and poison water supplies. When a plant like this explodes or catches fire, all of these threats are amplified. Air pollution in the region is so dense that officials are urging people to use face masks to prevent inhalation of “pulmonary irritants.” The Center for American Progress reported in 2008 that the 101 most dangerous facilities put 80 million Americans at risk.

Raining Fire: The cause of the initial fire is still unknown, but officials expect the fire to continue for days. Their current method: let it burn itself out.

  • But just 300 meters away are the banks of Rock River, home to thriving fisheries of catfish, bass, and walleye, as well as several endangered fish species.
  • To protect the river, the Rockford fire department, with the assistance of an industrial fire crew from Louisiana, dug a trench between the facility and the river.
  • Once they’ve secured the river, officials said, they’ll utilize foam to put out the remaining fire.

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker has now deployed the Illinois National Guard, crews from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA).

It was raining on us. Embers falling on us,” said local amateur photographer Jason Decker. So much debris has fallen that the city issued a warning to residents, urging them to avoid flaming waste until it can be disposed of properly. “Please do not pick up waste that falls from the sky and is related to the fire,” said Dr. Sandra Martell, public health administrator for Winnebago County. “We do not know what that waste contains. Please do not handle it with bare hands. Use a shovel, use gloves and sequester it…We are reliant on our groundwater in this community, and keeping that safe is of utmost importance to us.”

Fortunately, no casualties or serious injuries have been reported. Chemtool Inc. said that it successfully evacuated all 70 employees of the plant. One firefighter was briefly hospitalized with respiratory problems but has since been discharged. The Red Cross and Salvation Army have set up shelters to house hundreds of evacuated residents, and although they are without homes for the moment, they aren’t without hope. Resident Justice Sprague said, “I am very scared that my house will go on fire, but I know the fire department will protect our community.”

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