ROCKTON, Ill. — Emergency crews remain on the scene of a massive fire at a chemical plant in Rockton, Illinois.
The fire started around 7 a.m. Monday at Chemtool Incorporated, located at 1165 Prairie Hill Road. The company manufactures fluids, lubricants and grease products which are distributed worldwide.
According to WTVO, approximately 70 employees were evacuated and were uninjured. Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson said one firefighter was treated for injuries.
“This was a fast moving fire,” he said. “It was wind driven. It’s been very windy this morning.”
Following reports that the plumes of smoke were so big they were being picked up on weather radar, the Rockton Police Department at 8:46 a.m., posted an alert, warning that fire officials had ordered a mandatory evacuation near the plant. It told people to evacuate homes and businesses and to await further instructions.
Wilson said that “at this point and time there is no danger to air quality at ground level,” but that given the enormous plumes of smoke, officials ordered the evacuation as a precautionary measure.
“We don’t want an environmental nightmare to occur,” he said.
Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) director Alicia Tate-Nadeau said lead, antifreeze, nitrogen, sulfuric acid were among the chemicals burning.
“We are focused on life safety to ensure that everyone in this area is safe,” she said.
Trisha Diduch, the planning and development administrator for Rockton, said she estimates about 1,000 people are affected by the evacuation order and the downtown area, which is just about a mile from the plant, is being evacuated. The order is for a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) radius, she said.
Health officials recommended that residents within the evacuation zone to the northern part of Rockford utilize the use of masks or face coverings for the time being to prevent the inhalation of particulate matter.
Rockton Middle School, at 6121 Elevator Rd, has been set up as an evacuation site to help the displaced families.
The fire chief also said that it will likely take several days for the oil-based fire to burn off.
Chemtool released a statement that said:
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.
The Rockton Fire District Chief says his team decided to suspend all fire suppression efforts. Officials cite not wanting to put any more water on the blaze with growing concern about a chemical runoff in the nearby Rock River as their reasoning.
By nightfall, fire officials declared it was still not safe for evacuated residents to return home.
“Please be patient with us,” Wilson said. “We’re going to continue to monitor this as the night goes on.”
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said his office was monitoring the situation in Rockton, adding, “My thoughts are with the first responders fighting this blaze and all impacted. If you’re in the area, please follow the instructions of local law enforcement to stay safe.”
Governor Pritzker activated the states emergency response plan, sending a myriad of agencies to the scene.
A massive dark plume of smoke extended south-southeast from the fire, raining ash and debris on residents as far south as DeKalb.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigators from Chicago were headed to the scene and would issue a statement later Monday, spokeswoman Rachel Bassler said. They were coordinating with the Illinois EPA, which also was sending a team, according to spokeswoman Kim Biggs.
Rockton is located in Winnebago County, near the Wisconsin border, about 95 miles 153 kilometers) northwest of Chicago.