Rock Falls officials seeking help to identify brownfield sites

City will use an $800,000 EPA grant to assess, clean up sites contaminated by hazardous substances, pollutants

Flames shoot out of the Reliant Fastener factory in Rock Falls in 2007.

ROCK FALLS – Rock Falls city officials are seeking help from residents in identifying sites to test for hazardous substance contamination.

“We basically are putting together a database of things that might be [contaminated],” City Administrator Robbin Blackert said. “We know a few vacant properties in town that have had things happen in past decades that we keep track of … but every once in a while you’ll come across something that you didn’t realize, so that’s kind of what we’re looking for.”

The community outreach is a requirement of an $800,000 Brownfields Multipurpose Grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the city received in May 2023. Rock Falls is the only municipality in the state to have received the grant.

A brownfield is a property where expansion, redevelopment or reuse might be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant, according to the EPA website. There are more than 450,000 brownfields in the country, according to the EPA.

Examples of potential brownfields include former dry cleaners, former gas stations, properties where someone did home auto mechanic work and dumped oil into a yard, and vacant lots where people dump things, Blackert said. Contamination usually occurs because of industrial work, she said.

“So if they think, ‘Hey, maybe this property is contaminated because I know so-and-so used to dump something on it,’ that’s what we want to know about,” Blackert said.

The city is not looking to penalize or fine anyone for having a brownfield site, she said.

Part of the Brownfields Multipurpose Grant funds will go toward cleaning up the Parrish Alford Fence & Machine Co. site on West Second Street, Blackert said. The list of other things the grant funds can be used for is limited, she said.

According to the EPA’s fact sheet for Rock Falls’ grant, the funds can be used to conduct environmental site assessments – including of the Parrish Alford site – create a site inventory, develop a community involvement plan and perform other community outreach activities.

“This money cannot be used for a new road, it can’t be used to improve a park, it can’t be used for any of those,” Blackert said. “So I need to be clear that when residents are giving their input that they’re not asking for a new road.”

The Brownfields Multipurpose Grant works slightly differently than other EPA grants that provide funding for assessment and cleanup, Blackert said.

Usually, two separate grants – one for assessment and one for cleanup – have to be applied for at separate times, whereas the multipurpose grant provides both assessment and cleanup funding in one go, she said.

“There are sites that have been sitting across the United States that they have the assessment, they know they’re contaminated, but for whatever reason – change of personnel or just lack of the administration’s desire to pursue it – they don’t get that cleanup grant, and so the property just sits,” Blackert said.

Allowing properties to just sit is “terrible,” she said.

Blackert pointed to the fact that, if they had allowed the Reliant Fastener facility to sit after the Dec. 28, 2007, fire that destroyed many of the buildings on a 17-acre site, the city wouldn’t have RB&W Park or the Holiday Inn.

The Reliant Fastener fire triggered the U.S. EPA to help fund cleanup and remediation with money from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, which informally is called the Superfund. It is funded by taxes on the chemical and petroleum industries, according to

Getting money from the Superfund is “like opening your purse and saying, ‘Here, take whatever you need out of it,’” Blackert said. “That’s kind of what the [Reliant Fastener] fire kicked in here, so we were able to do a lot with that.”

EPA assessment and cleanup grants are funded by fines that parties responsible for contamination pay to the EPA, Blackert said.

“Unless you own a company and polluted and been fined, you’ve not paid for these grants,” she said. “These are dollars that we need to get back into our community to clean up.”

To provide input on potential brownfield sites within Rock Falls, email Blackert at

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Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner reports on Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties for Shaw Media out of the Dixon office. Previously, she worked for the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan, and the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.