Rockton fire chief: Chemtool contractor released mineral oil, ignition occurred

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Chemtool explosion in Rockton, June 14, 2021. Photo: Citizens for Chemtool Accountability

Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson announced Friday afternoon, June 25, that the Chemtool fire on June 14 was caused by a pool of mineral oil that was accidently released by an outside contractor. The contractor apparently struck a valve or pipe while using a scissor lift to replace insulation. According to the chief's report, hot mineral oil "immediately began falling and pooling on the floor." Chemtool employees quickly shut down the boiler that was heating the oil. They had begun depressurizing the pipes and using containment booms to handle the spill. "The investigation has not yet determined the source of ignition," says the chief's report.

Meanwhile, "the fire suppression efforts are complete," the Village of Rockton said yesterday on its Facebook page, "as of 2 pm on Wednesday, June 23.... The fire suppression team remains on site through Sunday to monitor for flare ups; on Sunday, the team will reassess whether additional fire monitoring is needed." Residents can find guidance for their next steps from the Winnebago County Health Department website, including how to deal with any debris or soot.

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Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson's complete news release on the cause of the fire:

On Monday, June 14th, 2021, at 07:00 hours, the Rockton Fire Protection District was dispatched to 1165 Prairie Hill Road for a report of a fire inside the Chemtool / Lubrizol facility. Subsequently, Rockton Fire investigated the cause and origin of the fire and has determined the cause of fire as ACCIDENTIAL.

Here are the events that took place on the morning of June 14th, 2021:
On Monday, June 14, a project was underway at the Chemtool / Lubrizol facility to replace insulation on an elevated heat transfer piping network that was part of the site’s system for heating certain vessels used in the manufacturing of lubricating greases. This network of piping carried heated mineral oil. 

That morning, an employee of an outside contractor performing the insulation replacement project was working in the area of origin. They were utilizing a scissor lift to access the elevated heat transfer piping network.

Shortly before 07:00 hours while the employee of the outside contractor was working in the area, a release occurred from the elevated piping. An unknown amount of mineral oil immediately began falling and pooling on the floor in the area of origin.

Chemtool operators promptly detected the release and shut down the boiler. They were in the process of placing containment booms, as well as de-pressuring the heat transfer piping network, when the fire ignited.

At the present time, the most credible scenario is that the scissor lift struck a valve or other piece of piping with sufficient mechanical force to cause the release of mineral oil. The investigation has not yet determined the source of ignition.

The Citizens for Chemtool Accountability had their first community meeting today on Monday, June 21 at Mary’s Market in Roscoe. Their Facebook slogan is "Holding Chemtool/Lubrizon accountable for the Rockton disaster," and they invite residents to fill out a survey to collect their concerns and explore involvement in the group.

Staff of the U.S. EPA are no longer in Rockton - the Illinois EPA has taken over - but they said, "Despite the odor, the current air quality is not a health concern." The Illinois EPA says water tests "are in compliance with applicable drinking water and groundwater standards." 

The Illinois EPA says, "The National Guard took wipe, water and ash samples. Illinois EPA's lab analyzed the wipe and water samples for semi-volatile organic coumpounds and the ash samples for metals...." All wipe and water samples were "non-detect" for semi-volatile organic compounds. All ash samples were "non-detect" or below threshold levels for metal compounds. The EPA's own samples showed the same, except they reported, "One wipe sample at a location close to the Chemtool property had one metal compound result, chromium, above the residential exposure limit."

U.S. EPA says they "also monitored the threat of discharge of oil throughout the incident. A recently constructed clay berm, interceptor trenches, and oil boom placement in the Rock River have mitigated this threat. The last clay berm that was part of this containment system was put in" on June 24.

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