Foam set to be sprayed onto burning Rockton chemical plant

Officials say a private firefighting company from Louisiana is planning to pump fire-suppressing foam onto the still-burning ruins of a northern Illinois chemical plant that was rocked by an explosion and massive fires

ROCKTON, Ill. — Rockton – A private firefighting company from Louisiana planned to pump fire-suppressing foam onto the still-burning ruins of a northern Illinois chemical plant that was rocked by an explosion and massive fires this week, officials said Tuesday.

Before US Fire Pump crews can begin pumping foam onto the fires that began Monday morning at the Chemtool Inc. plant near Rockton, absorbent booms must be installed to prevent contaminants from leaking into the nearby Rock River, said Kirk Wilson, chief of the Rockton Fire Department.

The village of Rockton, near the Wisconsin border, relies on the river as a source of drinking water, he said.

Wilson said the foam would be sprayed onto burned and burning areas of the plant, including about half a million gallons of burning oil. The plant manufactured lubricants, grease products and other fluids.

The explosion and fires prompted officials to evacuate an estimated 1,000 residents who lived within a 1-mile radius of the plant and to urge anyone within 3 miles to wear masks due to the threat posed by airborne impurities, Wilson said.

He said it was unclear when the evacuation order would be lifted, but asked residents “to stay vigilant."

"This is a large-scale operation that’s going to take some time," he said at a Tuesday news conference.

Wilson said US Fire Pump, which is based in Holden, Louisiana, has brought a large water pump to the plant site and plans to draw water from the Rock River in its efforts to douse the fires.

Once the fires are extinguished, investigators will begin looking into what caused them, he said.

The Chemtool plant in Winnebago County was outfitted with a sprinkler system in 2008, but Wilson said he did not know if that system still was active when the explosion and fires happened.

Bill Snyder, vice president of operations at Lubrizol Corp., the parent company of Chemtool, said he had no information on a possible cause, but that the company would cooperate with authorities. He said it was too early to address the question of whether the plant’s fire suppression may have failed.

Lubrizol Corp. is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, based in Nebraska.

More than 80 fire departments have been helping battle the fires, working eight-hour shifts at a time, Wilson said.

Snyder apologized to the local community, particularly those who had to evacuate their homes, noting that the fires had “a very severe impact" on residents.

Alicia Tate-Nadeau, director of Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said state officials are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other entities to monitor air quality, as well as making sure no contaminants enter the local water supply.

“This is an ongoing event. We’re not out of this yet,” Tate-Nadeau said.

The Chemtool plant was inspected by a federal agency less than a month before Monday's blast sent debris raining down onto nearby areas, WLS-TV reported. Inspectors from the U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Health and Safety Administration on May 20 investigated a complaint at the plant.

The station reported that a summary record of that inspection does not explain what was being inspected at the plant. That record states only that the complaint involved safety and health, and the case remains open, WLS-TV reported.

OSHA officials said they have six months to complete their investigation at the plant, and no further information will be made public until that work is finished, WLS-TV reported. There are no other outstanding cases or any violations in U.S. records pertaining to the plant.

Chemtool has recorded no U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violations during at least the past three years, WLS-TV reported.