Opinion

Editorial: How to protect against environmental nightmares of Morris, Rockton fires

We don’t yet know what caused the blaze last month in Winnebago County or the one this week in Morris, but we do know state and federal environmental oversight is weak.

The horrifying fire smoldered for days at a chemical plant in Rockton, north of Rockford. And the fire at a building housing tons of lithium batteries continues to burn this week in Morris – forcing the evacuation of about 3,000 people from their homes.

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 June 14 and was so large it could be seen from Ogle and McHenry counties, dramatically illustrated the enormous costs when something goes wrong, whatever the cause.

On June 16, health officials lifted mask recommendations for 3 miles around the Rockton plant after air-quality measurements remained stable, although the evacuation order for about 1,000 people within a 1-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.

And Morris city officials were unaware the formerly abandoned building that was burning was housing an estimated 100 tons of lithium batteries until about 10 minutes after firefighters started attacking the blaze with water and didn’t know the company, Superior Battery, even existed.

Morris Fire Chief Tracey Steffes said officials believe the company had been occupying the building for about a year, but “there’s still a lot of unanswered questions.”

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 or the Illinois River in Morris, could be immense. The evacuation orders at both blazes also imposes a cost on residents who couldn’t return to their homes.

Moreover, first responders were put in harm’s way.

The Rockton 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 should have learned long ago 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. 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 investigate both fires. But after-the-fact investigations are only part of what should be done. Stronger environmental oversight is needed to prevent future ecological calamities.

– Chicago Sun-Times and Shaw Media