A massive chemical fire broke out in the early hours of Monday, June 14th, 2021 at Chemtool, a chemical plant in Rockton, Illinois. Chemtool, a plant that specializes in the production of finish greases for automobile and industrial machinery, is now completely destroyed from the fire. 

The fire tore through the plant for nearly 24 hours before getting contained by the Rockton and surrounding areas fire departments, but not before releasing many harmful pollutants into the air and running the risk of contaminated runoff water getting into Rockton’s main waterway, Rock River. 

While the cause of the fire is not yet known, many harmful chemicals like sulfuric acid and lead were housed in the plant, and have now been released into the air. Employees and people within one mile of the fire were evacuated and everyone was able to make it out safely. Additionally, people living within three miles of the plant have been told to wear a mask in order to ensure their safety. Health officials are monitoring the air quality to keep everyone up to date. 

Our director, Joe Bolick, was driving back from Chicago that day and could see the plume for miles. “I actually looked at the weather map while we were stopping to grab lunch because it looked like a storm moving in from the west. Once we got on the road and were driving closer to where the incident happened, it was hands-down the biggest smoke plume I’ve ever seen. We could still see it in the rearview mirror 50 miles past, I bet it stretched at least 75 miles,” said Bolick.

When the fire was contained, the fire department stopped the use of water to put the fire out, in efforts to prevent contaminated water runoff from entering the Rock River. The fire department also began digging trenches to stop the contaminated water runoff that was initially created before it would be able to reach the river. Once the trenches were finished, foam was used to put out the remaining fire and hotspots.

Although no one was seriously injured by this chemical fire, the environmental impact may be much more serious. The total effects that this fire may have had on air quality and water quality are still not entirely known. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been conducting air monitoring and is overseeing cleanup efforts of the site moving forward. The EPA has ensured that all state and federal regulations regarding waste disposal will be followed.

The tragic nature of an event like this calls to the importance of keeping your business in compliance with all regulations and staying up to date with the latest practices and requirements regarding emissions, air quality, chemical and water quality. 

As a reminder, the IWRC offers free On-Site assistance and education for regulations surrounding air emissions, wastewater, stormwater, hazardous and solid waste and many more areas to Iowa Small Businesses. We are able to assist you in the training of yourself and those employed with your business to follow and abide by the correct regulations to help prevent any situation like this one from occurring. Jennifer Wittenburg, IAEAP Program Manager at the IWRC says, “Well thought out and outlined operating procedures, employee training, and frequent site inspections can not only ensure compliance with environmental regulations but they can also reduce a facility's risk of spills and/or fires.” 

If your business is interested in receiving additional education and assistance surrounding environmental regulations, you can contact the IWRC at 1-800-422-3109 or visit our website https://iwrc.uni.edu/iaeap. Taking these proactive steps can help to ensure the safety of your employees, business and community, and the Iowa Waste Reduction Center is here to help.


By Elle Olthoff

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