A devastating fire that started Monday continued to burn Tuesday at Lubrizol’s Chemtool grease manufacturing plant in Rockton, Illinois. No employees were injured, but the company said it anticipated a total loss of the facility as multiple emergency response teams continued working to control the inferno.
The cause had not been identified as of Tuesday evening, but the incident began at approximately 8 a.m. Eastern time Monday. Lubrizol confirmed that all employees were evacuated safely. At least one firefighter was treated for respiratory issues, according to news reports. Residents within a two-mile radius of the facility were evacuated.
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Dozens of fire departments from the surrounding area in Illinois and Wisconsin responded to the blaze. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker dispatched state emergency personnel, including the Illinois National Guard. “I am monitoring this situation closely, and will make all resources available to the surrounding communities as we work to keep people safe,” Pritzker said in a statement.
Lubrizol said it had secured the services of US Fire Pump, a third-party emergency response team, to help battle the fire. On Tuesday, heavy foam was being sprayed on the site.
As the fire engulfed the plant, an explosion shot a huge fireball into the sky.
Authorities have urged people within a three-mile radius of the plant to wear masks to prevent the inhalation of soot.
The fire had been allowed to burn until late Tuesday morning to prevent pollution of the Rock River, which is less than 500 yards away. Crews dug trenches and placed absorbent booms in the river to prevent any materials from the plant getting in.
Rockton Fire Protection District Fire Chief Kirk Wilson said the fire could burn for up to a week. The flames produced enough smoke to be picked up by weather radars.
“We are here to apologize, to support our employees, to support the community and do everything we can to support Chief Wilson and all the other resources that are on-site,” Lubrizol Vice President Bill Snyder said at a news conference Tuesday.
A safety and health complaint at the facility was filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in late May, and OSHA officials visited the site on May 20, though the details of the complaint are unknown. The case remains open, according to OSHA’s website. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database, the site has had no compliance violations in the past three years.
On Tuesday, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency urged Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to take legal action against Chemtool, saying the fire was “causing or allowing the release of pollution into the atmosphere.”
The company said it would continue to provide pay and benefits for the approximately 200 affected employees.
“Right now, nobody is out of a job,” Snyder said Tuesday. “Obviously, the facility is lost. We’re going to support our employees: full pay, full benefits. We also have counseling services for anybody who needs or wants those types of services, free of charge. We’re going to continue to support our employees as we work our way through this.” On its website Lubrizol said the Chemtool site produced industrial fluids and finished greases used in a variety of applications and that the company was analyzing how much was lost in the fire. The company also said the Rockton plant was the sole source of some products.
“We continue to work with experts and government agencies on environmental air and water monitoring,” Lubrizol said. “As we affirmed yesterday, to-date test results do not show any health risk other than the short-term irritation one would normally experience in the presence of smoke. We do not expect any short- or long-term health impacts otherwise.”
Lubrizol, based in Wickliffe, Ohio, is the world’s largest lubricant additives supplier, with operations in other industries. The company acquired Chemtool, the largest manufacturer of grease in the U.S., in 2013 after initially announcing plans in 2011 to acquire it.
In 2019, a Lubrizol lubricant additive manufacturing facility caught fire in Rouen, France. The blaze destroyed more than 5,200 metric tons of Lubrizol chemicals, and $40 million to $50 million worth of crops were destroyed out of safety precautions.