Chemtool fire: officials claim they're gathering information, not holding it back


John J. Kim, Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo: WIFR)

Residents near the Chemtool site are still wondering what they should do after the Chemtool fire in Rockton released a plume of smoke and debris for several days last month. But at a news conference Tuesday, Dr. Sandra Martell said if you're concerned about breathing in smoke, one of the best solutions is to stop smoking. 

Dr. Martell, Public Health Administrator at the Winnebago County Health Department, wasn't being flippant (and that wasn't all she said). While the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency continues to test for contaminants, its director, John Kim, says they still have found no evidence of "sustained non-compliance" in pollution levels or "any exceedances" of safe benchmarks. Dr. Martell said that, when environmental experts look at test results, they have to ask, "How do they compare with what we would normally see in the background of our environment?" And Dr. Martell said that the chemicals the EPA is testing for - particulates, VOCs, and PFAS - were already found in our environment. For that matter, the Chemtool plant is located on a Superfund site, though the EPA says the groundwater pollution there is under control.

Dr. Martell emphasized, "There are steps you could take right now, without knowing every fact, to help keep our environment as safe as possible, " such as choosing household products with low VOCs, avoiding outdoor burn piles, or changing your air filters. Residents are concerned that US Fire Pump, the private firefighter contractors hired by Chemtool, used PFAS-containing foam for roughly three hours on June 15 to help suppress the fire. But Dr. Martell says that PFAS, often called "forever chemicals," have also been used in many household items, such as cookware and packaging materials, so residents should avoid products that contain these chemicals. A June 19 water sample from the Rock River showed elevated levels of PFAS, but it was taken upstream from the plant.

Dr. Martell said that test results from the Chemtool fire are still being analyzed, and Severson Dells biologist Jillian Neese says that can take several weeks. Dr. Martell said that, unlike the tests done by the TV investigators/detectives on CSI, "we're not getting those back in 30 minutes to an hour to quickly resolve [the mystery.] It takes time to understand. And then it takes time to understand, 'Is it just in this location or is it somewhere else [too]?'"

Dr. Martell reminded the community that Thursday, July 15, is the deadline to complete the health impacts survey which her department launched on July 1. You can complete the 15 minute survey online - on computer, tablet, or smartphone - at or call the Chemtool hotline at 815-972-7300 for technical assistance. You may also go to the Rockton Village Hall to take the survey.

More than 1,900 have completed the anonymous survey so far. "The survey is voluntary but we were looking for a large response... We asked parents to complete them for their children... We wanted to cast that net out as large as we could." The survey was vetted by toxicologists, epidemiologists, and environmental scientists. Later, she said, "we will be launching what I call a pet and livestock survey."

Only 5% of those who responded to the survey said they required health care after the fire began, with less than half a percent needing more intensive care, such as hospitalization. She said, "The most commonly reported symptoms... were ear, nose and throat irritation, followed by headache, dizziness, eye irritation and some respiratory and lung" symptoms, all of which are expected during a fire. Dr. Martell said that, just because they issued a health survey, residents should make "no assumption that hazardous materials have been identified."

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Village of Rockton Mayor John Peterson began the meeting by saying that, almost a month after the Chemtool explosion, "There are still a lot of unanswered questions. What exactly is in the Chemtool building? What are the long-term effects of the fire? How are people with wells affected? What should people be doing if they are experiencing health problems as a result of the fire? I encourage your questions, questions I have too... I'm going to keep on asking. So far I've been unsuccessful, but I'm going to keep on trying. I'm going to keep asking until we get answers." He said that residents can email their questions to "or you can just email me."

Last week, Mayor Peterson said he wanted the governor to declare Rockton a disaster area, but has since learned that "emergency declarations have a lot to do with insurance" and are mainly designed to send outside help to communities with fewer resources than Rockton has.

Mayor Peterson has been asked to hold a town hall meeting so that residents could ask questions, but has said he won't do it without participation from Chemtool/Lubrizol (who agreed to come) and the Illinois EPA (who didn't). He said, "If we're going to have a town hall meeting, it shouldn't just be me on this stage with no answers... Getting the buy-in from all those agencies is important... Some of this information isn't there... there are some unanswered questions. It would be nice to have more answers... you don't want just me there to write down your questions."

Dan Ewers, deputy chief at the Rockton Fire Protection District, said that US Fire Pump took the lead in fire suppression on June 19 and that his department reported on June 25 that the fire was accidental. Clean Harbors says their cleanup work is nearly done, but residents with debris that still needs to be removed, or with any questions, can call them at 877-552-8942. The Winnebago County Health Department advised returning residents to call Clean Harbors to handle any debris, but residents have had to clean up soot and ash themselves.

John Kim, Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said that his agency will retain oversight over the investigation and remediation, and any work that Chemtool proposes to do will be reviewed and approved by them. He discussed the results of air, water and soil sampling, and said, aside from periodic spikes, they had not seen any contamination levels that were of concern. He said there is "no evidence that the water is compromised in any way by the fire" and that air quality monitors in Rockford, part of a permanent state-wide network, do not "show any exceedances" either.  He said the Illinois EPA continues to visit the site as needed, and one team goes out three times a week.  "We will provide technical and litigation support to the Attorney General's office," he said.

The Ilinois EPA  found contaminants in Rockton's wastewater, both upstream and downstream from the factory, so they didn't all come from Chemtool. According to test results from the Illinois EPA, water samples from the Rockton sewage treatment plant contained higher levels of zinc and other metals. On June 18, "the sample collected in the sanitary sewer manhole, upstream of the plugged sewer line at the Chemtool facility, contained boron, copper, zinc and pH at levels exceeding the IPCB’s water quality standards, and BOD5 that exceeded the IPCB effluent standard. The sample collected in the sanitary sewer manhole, downstream of the plugged sewer line at the Chemtool facility, contained bis (2-ethylhexyl) phythalate, copper, zinc and ammonia at levels exceeding the IPCB’s water quality standards, and BOD5 that exceeded the IPCB effluent standard."

Winnebago County State's Attorney J Hanley said his office joined with  Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to file a lawsuit against Chemtool last Friday, on the request of the Illinois EPA. He said this was not a criminal investigation. "I thought about it a lot...  I thought it was important for our office to join that litigation" for the protection of the county's citizens. He said the Illinois Attorney General's office is taking the lead in the litigation. "They have experts, they do this all the time," but his office will be there to support them.

Hanley said the lawsuit has two goals: first, evaluation, or finding out what happened, and secondly, remediation, or limiting the damage. "It's not just right now, it's also in the future." His office is seeking "injunctive relief," which means "we want someone to stop doing something or compel them to do something." He hopes this goal will be completed in three to six months.

Hanley said that Chemtool is involved in continuing negotiations with the County and the Attorney General's office. "The only thing I can say right now is those those negotiations are ongoing." To help explain the situation, Hanley gave an example, which he admitted was imperfect: just because one neighbor wants his neighbor to pay for hitting his car doesn't mean they hate each other. "It will probably get contentious, as litigation does," Hanley said, but "I don't view this as anti- Chemtool." 

Hanley said cost recovery is important because local governments expended resources to fight the fire, and their lawsuit does ask Chemtool to pay fines. But he said, "Speaking for our office, the financial is not the priority," but rather evaluation and remediation. He noted that Winnebago County does not have a "spiller" law, as Rockton does, so the state lawsuit won't be focusing on sending a bill to Chemtool. But though all levels of government are involved, "we're all communicating with each other...  I balk at the idea that a delay means some kind of conspiracy."

Winnebago County Board Chairman Joseph V. Chiarelli told residents, "The county is here for you... We're not here trying to avoid conversations and questions... We want real answers in real time to be able to help the situation... There are many agencies involved... When litigation is involved, that presents another barrier."

Northern Public Radio station WNIJ is also collecting questions and concerns through an online form so they can further dig into the issues surrounding the Chemtool disaster and report on the answers to their listeners.

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