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After Rockton chemical explosion, protecting Rock River from oil handed to plant owner

The job is largely being left to Lubrizol, which owns the Chemtool plant. That ‘defies logic,’ says Angela Fellars, a Winnebago County Board member.

Firefighters battling the June 14 industrial fire that followed an explosion at Chemtool in Rockton.
Firefighters battling the June 14 industrial fire that followed an explosion at Chemtool Inc. in Rockton. The plant produces lubricants, grease products and other chemicals.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

An industrial explosion that shook Rockton more than a week ago has officials worried about the possibility of environmental damage to the nearby Rock River, which faces a threat from the more than one million gallons of crude oil stored at the now-destroyed chemical plant north of Rockford.

Protecting the river is largely being left to Lubrizol, which owns the Chemtool plant, though state and federal environmental agencies say they’re keeping watch.

Five days after the disaster, the fire chief handed over command responding to the disaster to the chemical maker on June 19.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials warned that the oil, much of it still contained in massive containers that were left structurally weakened, poses a significant threat to the river that’s only about 700 feet away.

“If oil got into the river, it could endanger wildlife and dissolve certain chemicals,” says Craig Thomas, the federal EPA’s on-scene coordinator. “In this instance, I feel fortunate. It seems like all of the products have been contained onsite.”

Chemtool also produces greases, additives and other industrial fluids. The EPA estimated the site contained several million gallons of grease.

Officials also are concerned about toxic contaminants being released into the air and are testing to determine whether pollution levels are safe. Nothing has exceeded safety limits set by the EPA, but there have been excessive amounts of particle pollution that can reach into the lungs, causing irritation and more serious harm.

Illinois officials are asking the company to estimate the amount of air pollution and have referred the matter to Attorney General Kwame Raoul.

The company says it’s cooperating with investigators.

The river isn’t a source of drinking water but is used for fishing and recreation and connects to the Mississippi River around the Quad Cities. Parts of the river already are impaired by agricultural and industrial pollution.

Lubrizol contractors have built two trenches — 1,400 feet and 1,600 feet long — to try to capture oil and wastewater before it reaches the river. And 2,700 feet of floating barrier was placed near shore. The contractors also built a containment berm closer to the now-leveled building that’s six feet high, 50 feet wide and 250 feet long.

The reinforcement is needed because large containers holding oil and other fluids are showing structural damage, according to Thomas.

The blast June 14 produced a giant fireball, massive clouds of black smoke and fires that burned for more than a week, forcing nearby residents to evacuate.

It also triggered an investigation from a federal agency that responds to the nation’s worst chemical disasters.

“This caught our attention because of the potential impact to the community and the environment,” says David LaCerte, acting managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

It appears that an initial combustion in the plant, possibly caused by machinery coming into contact with a pipe, led to subsequent explosions, LeCerte says.

This aerial photo shows large containers still standing at the destroyed Chemtool plant in Rockton. Officials worry that more than one million gallons of oil stored at the site is a threat to the Rock River.
This aerial photo shows large containers still standing at the destroyed Chemtool plant in Rockton. Officials worry that more than one million gallons of oil stored at the site is a threat to the Rock River.
Rick Kurtz

Rockton, a town of about 7,600 people, was hardly prepared to handle a disaster of such magnitude. More than 160 fire departments, with more than 350 firefighters, helped extinguish the fire, according to Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson.

Wilson was in charge of the emergency response until he turned over the command last weekend to Lubrizol fire chief Robert Campise, who wasn’t available for comment.

Wilson says Lubrizol has a better understanding chemical disasters. The company had a large explosion and fire at a plant in France in 2019.

“With any industrial fire incident like this, this is their forte,” Wilson says.

“It defies logic,” Angela Fellars, a Winnebago County Board member, says of leaving the company whose plant exploded in charge in the aftermath. “But there are a lot of things about this situation that defies logic.”

The company’s contractor sprayed a harmful foam on the fire that required state environmental officials to test water in the area to make sure it wasn’t contaminated. Those results have not yet been made public.

Three lawsuits have been filed related to the explosion.

Some officials have questioned Lubrizol’s safeguards and its handling of the response. A Facebook group, Citizens for Chemtool Accountability, formed days after the explosion. Elizabeth Lindquist, a trustee of nearby Roscoe Township who helped start the group, says she was shocked to learn of the oil threat.

“I am totally surprised,” Lindquist says. “I assumed there was a decent quantity but not that much.”

Jim Webster, the Winnebago County Board member who represents the area and lives in Rockton, says most people he has spoken with “weren’t too wound up about it.”

“Is there a cause for concern?” Webster says. “Yes, absolutely. We really don’t know what the long-term effects are. We won’t know about the long term for a while.”

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