Gov. Pritzker sends National Guard to respond to chemical fire in Rockton

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Chemtool smoke plume, June 14, 2021

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker has announced that "out of an abundance of caution, local authorities have evacuated a two-mile radius" around Lubrizol Corporation’s Chemtool facility at 1165 Prairie Hill Road in Rockton, Illinois, where a huge fire broke out at 7:00 a.m. Monday morning.  All 70 employees were safely evacuated. According to WIFR, one firefighter was injured, but not seriously. WTVO quoted a Chemtool employee on the scene who said, "Those small explosions that everyone’s seeing are drums of fluid or grease." Chemtool is the largest manufacturer of grease in the United States. Its lubricating greases come in several types, including lithium, lithium complex, aluminum complex, polyurea, clay/bentone, and overbased calcium sulfonate (OBCS).

Before the Governor's announcement, residents within a one mile area were required, then strongly encouraged, to evacuate. They were originally sent to Rockton schools such as Stephen Mack Middle School, but according to Rockton Police, they had to be moved to Roscoe Middle School instead, where Harlem-Roscoe Fire Department had set up an evacuation site and activated their CERT Team to help. The Village of Rockton originally posted a hand-drawn evacuation map that extended beyond one mile. According to Trisha Diduch of the Village of Rockton, about 1,000 people were affected by the evacuation order. Fire Chief Kirk Wilson says that included 150 homes and would remain in effect at least until mid-afternoon. By then, the Governor had extended the evacuation zone.

Governor JB Pritzker said, "I am monitoring this situation closely and will make all resources available to the surrounding communities as we work to keep people safe. Teams from multiple state agencies are on the ground and coordinating closely with local authorities and we will continue to make additional information available as soon we have it. To those impacted, please listen to guidance from emergency officials and know that the state of Illinois is doing everything possible to protect you and your loved ones." State health officials are recommending that residents within the evacuation zone wear masks or face coverings for the time being, to keep from inhaling soot particles.

Chemtool participates in the Tier II program, a mandat0ry annual federal report for companies that store hazardous materials. Using this report, state and federal authorities can track and enforce rules on the storing of hazardous materials, and it also helps local authorities deal with fires and other emergencies.

Personnel from the following State agencies and organizations are responding to this emergency:

• Illinois Emergency Management Agency
• Illinois State Police
• Illinois Department of Transportation
• Illinois Department of Public Health
• Illinois Environmental Protection Agency
• Office of State Fire Marshal
• Illinois National Guard
• Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS)
• American Red Cross
• Salvation Army

The Chemtool smoke plume was visible for miles, even from Madison and DeKalb. After initial tests of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) Monday morning, Fire Chief Kirk Wilson of the Rockton Fire Protection District had reported,  "There are no identified air quality issues when measured at ground level. The County Health Department has recommended that any properties located within the field of the smoke plume should close doors and windows, and turn off air-conditioning units." 

According to a later statement from the Northern Illinois Rockford Region Public Information Officers (NIR-PIO), "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now arriving on scene and working with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and other local partners. They are setting up to do more in-depth testing to measure the impact to air, water and land. We will communicate as soon as we have more information." For residents who live two miles or less directly south of Chemtool, they added, "The Illinois Department of Public Health is advising people to wear a mask if they are within the evacuation zone." As part of its response, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency sent its Radiological Emergency Assessment Center (REAC) and the Illinois National Guard Civil Support Team to "establish air monitoring to validate plume modeling."

At the news conference Monday morning, Fire Chief Kirk Wilson said that letting the chemicals burn off was the safest way to protect air quality and to avoid runoff from fire hoses into the Rock River. Chief Wilson said, "We don’t want to cause an environmental catastrophe" if oily chemicals should contaminate the nearby Rock River, which is less than 1000 feet away. One resident who evacuated told us that "the river is full" of ash and debris, with pieces as large as a woman's head. Chief Wilson estimates the smoke and fire could last for days. Shifting wind may change the affected area, which includes parts of the Rock River. According to WTVO, wind speeds reached 15 miles per hour. Debris fell in Rockford, Loves Park, and even DeKalb.

In a updated statement released at 4:20 p.m. Monday, Lubrizol spokeswoman Alicia Gauer said, "We are not aware of any test results that show health risk other than the short-term irritation one would normally experience in the presence of smoke. We will continue to complete additional testing and have released all product data information to local authorities."

Some of the 40 local agencies that responded to the fire include Rockton Fire Protection District, Rockton Police, South Beloit Fire Department, Harlem-Roscoe Fire Protection District, Winnebago County Sheriff, and the Village of Rockton. More than 150 firefighters were on the scene, but many were dispatched elsewhere to put out smaller fires and grass fires from burning cardboard and wooden pallets spread by the wind.

Cody Adams, Senior Public Relations Manager at parent company Lubrizol told Roscoe News early Monday morning, "We have confirmed all on site are safe and accounted for. Our concern right now is for the safety of all our employees and the surrounding community. As a precaution, authorities have evacuated residents in a one-mile radius of the site. We do not yet know what caused this incident, but we will be working with local authorities and with our own risk management team to determine what happened and identify any corrective actions. We will share more details as they are known. We are grateful to our employees, first responders and safety forces responding to this incident."  Lubrizol is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the multi-national holding company led by Warren Buffett, which also owns GEICO, Duracell, Dairy Queen, BNSF, Fruit of the Loom, Helzberg Diamonds, and Pampered Chef.

The Village of Roscoe said, "Rockford Haz-Mat teams are among those present on site... There is currently an evacuation order in place for all businesses and residences located within a one-mile radius of the fire. Roscoe Middle School, 6121 Elevator Road, has been established as a staging area for anyone displaced by the evacuation order."

The Salvation Army were sending a mobile feeding unit, including a field kitchen and rapid response unit to provide meals, snacks and beverages to first responders, according to the Salvation Army of Winnebago County. Evacuees at Roscoe Middle School will be fed lunch. Community groups Blue815 and Jaimie Cox Foundation were collecting donations of water and Gatorade for the firefighters, delivering them to the Rockton Fire Station, as well as accepting cash donations through Paypal. The Stateline Mass Transit District said they would do their best to assist with emergency evacuations by bus. The Red Cross was also assisting.

A 2010 Rockford Register-Star article reported that the Village of Rockton spent at least $1.7 million to persuade Chemtool to move to Rockton from Crystal Lake. Their 180-acre facility, formerly owned by the Beloit Corporation, was named a Superfund site but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says Chemtool has "significantly upgraded that portion of the facility."

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