Contractor sprays Rockton plant fire with harmful ‘forever chemical,’ prompting water testing

State environmental officials are now testing water around the Chemtool plant fire to determine whether firefighting foam caused contamination.

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Firefighters from Illinois and Wisconsin battled an industrial fire at Chemtool in Rockton this week. A private contractor sprayed a firefighting foam that contains a harmful chemical and local water is being tested for contamination.

Scott Olson, Getty

A private fire fighting company hired by the owner of a manufacturing plant that exploded near Rockford Monday initially sprayed the blaze with a harmful chemical foam that is now prompting water testing to check for contamination.

Following the explosion at the Chemtool plant in Rockton, the facility’s owner hired a private contractor to help more than 80 fire departments from Illinois and Wisconsin control the flames. 

The problem, according to state and federal environmental officials, is that the private company, Louisiana-based US Fire Pump, sprayed a foam containing perfluorooctanoic acid, part of a class of chemicals known as PFAS. Nationally, there is a push to ban these chemicals for fear that they are harmful to humans, potentially causing organ damage and cancer. Nicknamed “forever chemicals,” they are believed to remain in the environment, animals and humans for long periods of time. 

Now Illinois environmental officials are testing samples from the nearby Rock River and area groundwater to determine whether any “chemicals of concern” contaminated the sources. The area’s drinking water source is groundwater wells and the closest well to the fire is about 1.25 miles, state officials said.

US Fire Pump used PFAS-containing foam for about three hours on Tuesday, even though state and federal officials had warned against doing so, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Both state and federal environmental officials raised concerns to Chemtool on Monday about using the PFAS foam and asked that the company discuss it with the various state, local and federal officials who are on site near the disaster, EPA said.

On Tuesday, “upon realizing that pumping operations were beginning before that discussion had happened, the agencies requested that the operations be halted so containment controls could be reviewed,” the EPA said in a statement. 

Rockton Fire Department Chief Kirk Wilson, who is leading the effort to put out the fire, ordered the foam spraying to be stopped while protections were put into place to try to prevent runoff of the chemical, the EPA said. Wilson couldn’t be reached for comment.

The company has since stopped using the foam with the PFAS, state and federal officials said.

The Illinois EPA, which is leading the water-testing effort, said it will share results as soon as they’re available.

While some states, such as California and New York, have been addressing PFAS concerns through restrictions or outright bans, national groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, have pushed for federal laws to protect public health. 

“It is very disturbing to hear that PFAS foam was used despite the warnings of both federal EPA and Illinois EPA,” said Daniel Rosenberg, an NRDC senior attorney and director of Federal Toxics Policy. “This is exactly why we need federal laws to prevent more incidents of PFAS contamination.”

In a statement, Lubrizol, the company that owns the Chemtool plant, said it provided “all requested information” to government officials overseeing the response to the fire. 

“We followed all notifications protocols throughout the process,” Lubrizol said in a statement. 

A representative of US Fire Pump declined to comment, referring questions to the Rockton Fire Department.

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

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