As Rockton fire still burns, health concerns become a factor

Published: Jun. 14, 2021 at 12:17 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 14, 2021 at 6:28 PM CDT
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ROCKTON, Ill. (WMTV) - A massive fire continues to burn at a chemical plant just across the Illinois border in the city of Rockton. The fire, which has consumed the entire Chemtool facility, forced the evacuation of scores of people.

Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson confirmed shortly before noon that no major injuries have been reported so far; however one firefighter suffered minor ones. The company that owns the plant, Lubrizol Corporation, put out a statement earlier in the day that it has confirmed its employees are “safe and accounted for.”

HEALTH CONCERNS

Public Health Administrator Sandra Martell explained that her agency is focused on safety “first and foremost,” noting that there is an environmental concern with the chemicals involved from the plant. In a Monday evening news conference, she reiterated health officials calls that anyone within a mile of the site evacuate. Additionally, anyone who lives within three miles of the facility should wear a face covering.

“So what we’re going to do is to continue to monitor the air quality samples and if things change we’ll change our plans for further evacuation,” Wilson said.

Martell also asked people who see waste from the plant fall from the sky not to pick it up. If someone does move it, they should keep it separate from regular household waste, she said, adding that the most important thing for her agency is keeping the groundwater safe.

The blaze sent thick smoke billowing high into the atmosphere; so high, in fact, that plumes of it could be seen in Janesville, approximately 30 miles away from the plant. The smoke was also picked up on weather radar, registering similarly to how a storm would look. (View gallery for photos from as far away as Janesville as well as the radar image)

Wilson predicted it will take several days before the fire is completely extinguished, explaining that they will need to let the fire continue to burn. He said firefighters are now focused on keeping it contained, but they have stopped all suppression efforts.

“We’re letting this product burn. and that’s the safest thing we can do right because we’re so concerned about the runoff into the waterways,” he said.

Firefighters first rushed to the facility, at 1165 Prairie Hill Rd., around 7 a.m. with some neighbors reporting hearing small explosions. Soon, multiple other departments responded to the scene to help get the flames under control

When the evacuation was ordered, about 150 people in nearby neighborhoods needed to clear out, with many going to Roscoe Middle School, while others went to Rockton Middle School. Frisellabrations, on Yale Bridge, in South Beloit, also opened its doors for those who evacuated and would like air-conditioning.

Rockton Village President Jon Peterson

Lubrizol Corporation spokesperson Alicia Gauer said the company is still unsure what sparked the fire and it plans to work with local authorities and its risk management team to determine the cause and any steps needed to avoid a further situation.

“We will share more details as they are known. We are grateful to our employees, first responders and safety forces responding to this incident,” she continued.

“At approximately 7 a.m. today, local emergency personnel responded to a fire at the Lubrizol Corporation’s Chemtool Facility in Rockton, Ill. 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.”

Alicia Gauer, Senior Director, Global Communications for the Lubrizol Corporation

GOVERNORS RESPOND

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers tweeted his sympathies for Rockton and the surrounding communities, which extended and affected his home state.

“Kathy and I are thinking of Rockton and the surrounding area given the tragedy at Chemtool today. I am continuing to monitor this situation and we offer our prayers and support for all those affected,” the governor wrote on Twitter.

Evers counterpart in Illinois, Gov. JB Pritzker has been providing updates on his Twitter account, urging people to follow the guidance of their local law enforcement and to heed recommendations regarding evacuations and the wearing of masks.

“My thoughts are with the first responders fighting this blaze and all impacted,” he added.

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