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Attorney General should take legal action in chemical plant explosion, Illinois EPA says

State environmental officials are asking for documents to determine the cause of Monday’s blast and possible toxic releases.

Smoke billows from an industrial fire at Chemtool Monday in Rockton. The fire at the chemical plant, which produces industrial grease and fluids, prompted evacuations.
Smoke billows from an industrial fire at Chemtool Monday in Rockton. The fire at the chemical plant, which produces industrial grease and fluids, prompted evacuations.
Scott Olson, Getty

State environmental officials are asking Attorney General Kwame Raoul to take legal action against the company Chemtool after its chemical plant near Rockford exploded earlier this week and continued to burn Tuesday.

Raoul should “pursue legal action and require Chemtool to immediately stop the release” of pollution, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said.

The legal move was announced as firefighters continued to battle a blaze that began with a Monday morning explosion in the village of Rockton. Dozens of employees escaped just before the blast, residents were evacuated and a large cloud of black smoke was still rising from the site Tuesday as the fire raged.

In a statement, Chemtool’s owner said: “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 state EPA also wants Raul’s office to force the company to turn over records that may determine “the cause of the fire and an estimate of the nature and amount of any emissions of sulfuric acid mist, particulate matter and other air contaminants as a result of the fire.”

Authorities evacuated residents within a one-mile radius and told people as far away as 3 miles from the now-destroyed facility to wear a mask for protection. Federal officials are testing the air.

Trump weakened environmental protections

Also on Tuesday, safety advocacy groups said they are hopeful that a new review being led by the Biden Administration may result in strengthening laws in hopes of preventing the type of disaster like the one in Rockton.

Critics say weak federal oversight exacerbated by relaxed regulation under Donald Trump’s Administration contributes to such accidents.

The Rockton plant makes lubricating greases and industrial fluids but it’s unclear exactly what caused the fire or what’s being emitted, a concern of environmentalists who say government oversight of the chemical industry is too lax.

“You have no idea what’s in the air,” said Jane Williams, a Sierra Club activist in California who tracks chemical disasters nationally. The firefighters at the scene “are completely in the dark to what they are being exposed to, which is so wrong.”

Williams and others hope that a review in Washington that could take years will lead to more preventative measures taken by government and companies. For its part, Lubrizol, the company that owns the plant, says it has operated safely since 2012 after it bought Chemtool. Lubrizol is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

A black smoke cloud from the massive industrial fire at Chemtool Rockton billows over a house on S. Bluff Road Monday, June 14, 2021
A black smoke cloud from the massive industrial fire at Chemtool on Prairie Hill Road in Rockton billows over a house on S. Bluff Road Monday, June 14, 2021, in South Beloit, Ill.
AP

“We’re just really heartbroken by what happened and its impact on the community in particular,” Bill Snyder, vice president of operations for Lubrizol, said at a press conference Tuesday.

The accident follows the start of a review by federal environmental officials to evaluate safeguards at chemical plants. The day Joe Biden took the White House Jan. 20, he signed an executive order to strengthen chemical plant oversight following Trump Administration directives to relax rules. At the urging of the chemicals industry, the EPA under Trump worked to undo safeguards put in place just before he took office. Those rollbacks prompted a lawsuit against the Trump Whitehouse by Illinois and 14 other states as well as legal challenges from national environmental organizations.

Limited oversight

Even if Trump had not acted to scale back regulations, the Rockton plant still had limited oversight. Inspections are conducted by the Illinois EPA but it’s unclear how often and records are not easily publicly accessible. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspects facilities when there is a complaint and has done so three times since 2012. In 2013, the company paid one fine of $4,900 after OSHA cited it for failing to make sure dangerous machinery doesn’t start up and potentially injure workers. Another OSHA inspection was opened last month after an unspecified complaint, records show.

More than 30 years ago, jarred by a deadly gas-leak accident that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, Congress passed a law to strengthen the government’s hand in preventing chemical disasters. The Chemical Safety Board was created as part of that law passed in 1990 and the investigative body has been making recommendations for years, advocates say. But tougher rules weren’t put in place until the very end of Barack Obama’s presidency.

The Obama rules drew a rebuke from the American Chemistry Council, the industry trade group that later praised Trump’s rollback of the guidelines.

“Trump reversed all prevention measures,” said Emma Cheuse, a lawyer for the group Earthjustice. “The program right now is weak.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.