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How to better protect against environmental nightmares like the Rockton plant fire

We don’t yet know what caused the blaze in Winnebago County, but we do know state and federal environmental oversight is weak.

Firefighters from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin battle an industrial fire at Chemtool Inc. on Monday in Rockton. The chemical fire at the plant which produces lubricants, grease products and other fluids, has prompted local evacuations.
Firefighters from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin battle an industrial fire at Chemtool Inc. on Monday in Rockton. The chemical fire at the plant which produces lubricants, grease products and other fluids, has prompted local evacuations.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

We don’t know yet what caused the horrifying fire that still is smoldering at a chemical plant north of Rockford, but we do know the risk of such events has grown since the state and federal government cut back on inspections and enforcement.

Both the state and the federal government need to get their environmental oversight back on track. Everyone’s health depends upon it.

Environmental regulations governing industrial sites currently are not strong enough, and they are not sufficiently enforced. If nothing else, the blaze at Chemtool in Winnebago County, which started Monday and was so large it could be seen from Kankakee, dramatically illustrated the enormous costs when something goes wrong, whatever the cause.

On Wednesday, health officials lifted mask recommendations for three miles around the Rockton plant after air-quality measurements remained stable, although the evacuation order for about 1,000 people within a one-mile radius of the plant remained in effect. But we don’t know what the final environmental effects will be. Neighbors said they heard multiple explosions at the plant.

The total cost of health-damaging pollutants and particulates released into the air, toxins that might make their way into the groundwater or the nearby Rock River — although none had been found as of Wednesday — and financial losses to the company could be immense. The evacuation order also imposes a cost on residents who cannot return to their homes.

Moreover, first responders were put in harm’s way, and we don’t know whether they used fire-suppressing foam containing PFAS, a toxic substance that will be banned in Illinois if Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a bill that was passed by the Legislature on May 27.

The industrial plant, which made industrial lubricants, grease products and other fluids, stored lead, antifreeze, nitrogen sulfuric acid and other chemicals on its site. Chemtool is a federally designated Tier II site, requiring that an annual report be produced about its hazardous materials. The report is used by both state and federal environmental authorities.

What happened at Chemtool might turn out to be something that could not have been prevented by inspections, but we long ago should have learned that cutting corners on environmental enforcement can cost exponentially more than the cost of “burdensome” regulations and oversight.

That, however, didn’t stop the Trump administration from cutting back on oversight. As Brett Chase reported in Wednesday’s Sun-Times, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump worked to undo safeguards, at the urging of the chemicals industry. When President Joe Biden took office, he signed an executive order to strengthen chemical plant oversight. Now, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan wants to hire 1,200 more inspectors.

The staffs at both the regional U.S. EPA office and the Illinois EPA have been hollowed out over the years, and for the most part inspections were not done during the pandemic. That puts everyone at risk.

The need for more aggressive inspections and greater transparency was illustrated in Illinois in the last decade by dangerous chemical releases at Sterigenics in Willowbrook and Medline Industries in Lake County. Both plants failed to notify the EPA of emissions of toxic ethylene oxide. Sterigenics’ Willowbrook facility now is closed, but the emissions were allowed for years without nearby residents being told.

The Illinois EPA has asked Attorney General Kwame Raoul to “pursue legal action and require Chemtool to immediately stop the release [of pollutants].” But an after-the-fact investigation is only part of what should be done. Stronger environmental oversight is needed to prevent future ecological calamities.

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