State attorneys file suit against Chemtool for environmental recovery


Saying that Chemtool violated the Illinois Environmental Protection Act by releasing smoke, debris, and contaminated water, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Winnebago County State's Attorney J Hanley filed a lawsuit on July 9, asking for the company to pay a $50,000 fine for each violation and $10,000 per day of violation. A massive fire broke out at Chemtool's plant in Rockton on Monday, June 14. The facility at 1165 Prairie Hill Road, owned by Lubrizol Corporation, was the largest manufacturer of grease in the United States. Lubrizol is one of many companies owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the multi-national holding company led by multi-billionaire and philanthropist Warren Buffett.

In a statement Friday, Attorney General Raoul (D) said, "My office, in collaboration with the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office will ensure that Chemtool is held responsible for evaluating the extent of the contamination and thoroughly remediating the damage."

In the same statement, Attorney Hanley (R) said, “I am grateful for the thorough and swift investigation by the Illinois EPA and Attorney General Kwame Raoul. I look forward to working with the Attorney General to protect Winnebago County’s environment and the health of its citizens.”

The legal process actually began the day the fire started. The Illinois EPA asked the Illinois Attorney General to demand that Chemtool put out the fire, clean everything up, explain why it happened, and estimate what chemicals were released. Chemtool said at the time, "We understand this action, and we will of course work with State and Federal regulators to address the concerns raised in the referral. This would include working to address any pollution issues as we have since this incident began and executing a site clean-up once the fire has been extinguished."

The lawsuit says, "By releasing smoke, particulate matter and potentially other unknown contaminants into the environment, by causing firefighting foam to be discharged to the Rock River, by depositing firefighting water runoff and foam runoff onto the ground, and by allowing the continued storage of petroleum product in an unsafe manner at the Facility, Defendant created and is continuing to allow circumstances of substantial danger to the environment and to public health and welfare."

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In other words, the lawsuit complains that the fire shouldn't have released smoke ("air pollution") and the fire hoses shouldn't have released water and foam ("water pollution") and that Chemtool shouldn't have scattered ash and debris on their neighbors ("unauthorized waste disposal"). It demands that Chemtool stop releasing these things. Chemtool stopped fire suppression activities on Wednesday, June 23, and debris has stopped falling from the sky, so that part seems covered. Chemtool says they will clean up everything, and Rockton's "spiller pays" ordinance may mean they will have to pay for everything. For example, the South Beloit Fire Department expects to be reimbursed for their equipment that was lost or ruined by the fire. The lawsuit seems aimed at making sure Chemtool follows through with their obligations.

Besides the obvious, the lawsuit also complains that four petroleum tanks on the property are no longer safe and that "on June 17, 2021, a release of non-PFAS containing foam occurred due to backpressure in one of the fire hoses after the pump was turned off, but a valve was open. Foam traveled to the Rock River where firefighting foam was visible on the Rock River. Booms were deployed to contain the foam on the Rock River and a vacuum truck removed foam from the surface of the water."

As the lawsuit says, the foam found in the Rock River was not the fluorinated foam used for three hours on June 14, which contained PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance). PFAS build up in the human body and in the environment, and can cause health problems.

On the first day of the fire, as we reported, U.S. EPA and Illinois EPA had strongly warned Chemtool not to use fluorinated foam. When Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson found out that US Fire Pump, a private industrial firefighting cooperative hired by Chemtool, had started pumping fluorinated fire-suppression foam, he told US Fire Pump to switch to a non-fluorinated foam, which they did.

A Lubrizol spokesman said, "Fluorinated foam is twice as effective as non-fluorinated foam in suppressing a fire like the one we experienced." On June 24, the U.S. EPA said, "All wastewater from the site is currently stored in tanks onsite and will be characterized for disposal before being shipped to an appropriate facility."

The lawsuit also says that Chemtool has "approximately four storage tanks at the Facility with an estimated 100,000 gallons of petroleum product." It alleges that because these tanks have "compromised integrity due to the Fire, there is a substantial threat of discharge of oil to land and a navigable waterway, the Rock River."

The lawsuit claims as of July 9, "product remains in unstable tanks and the land at the Site is heavily contaminated with runoff from firefighting efforts." It also states that Chemtool hasn't said exactly how much material was released into the environment. And "a complete engineering analysis of the events leading to the Fire has not been performed and the root cause of the Fire has not been conclusively determined."

On July 8, Chemtool said, "Relative to the cause of the fire, Rockton Fire Protection District’s initial investigation determined that the fire was most likely caused when a pipe or valve was struck by a scissor lift as a contractor replaced insulation on an elevated heat transfer piping network... While our initial findings are consistent with this summary, we are developing a plan to assess the area where reports suggest the fire began once the scene is available to do so."

Assistant Attorneys General Kevin Garstka and Ellen O’Laughlin are handling the case for the Illinois Attorney General's Environmental Bureau. Civil Bureau Chief Lafakeria Vaughn is handling the case for the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office.

Citizens for Chemtool Accountability has a Facebook page with more than 500 followers and the slogan "Holding Chemtool/Lubrizon accountable for the Rockton disaster." The group held a potluck meal on Friday and has started the Chemtool Mapping Project to create a publicly available map with photos showing each resident's unique perspective of the disaster. asking residents to upload pictures of debris, the smoke plume, and any environmental impacts from the Chemtool fire. They ask contributors to provide the specific location where their photo was taken or debris was found. Often your digital camera or phone will automatically include the location in each photo's metadata unless you have disabled that setting.

More coverage:

Residents invited to complete survey on Chemtool impact

Environmental expert: be concerned about years, not days, of exposure to chemicals

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

Chemtool fire dwindles, cleanup continues, lawsuits emerge

Rockton air quality remains stable, Chemtool will pay for debris cleanup and evacuee expenses

Chemtool employees still being paid, Rockton still under evacuation order

Lubrizol employees in France think they've seen this smoke plume before

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

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