ROCKTON, Ill.

A national environmental conservation group is calling for expanded transparency over risk management protocols used by federal authorities in oversight of chemical disasters, citing the Chemtool fire that burned for several days last month as a prime example why.

Last week, affected Rockton residents provided testimony at the Environmental Protection Agency’s public listening session regarding the EPA’s Risk Management Plan rules.

The Sierra Club, an environmental activism collective with more than 3.8 million members, thinks the circumstances of the Chemtool fire were not covered by the risk management rules and should have been.

“Chemtool is the poster child for why the risk management prevention program for chemical safety must be expanded,” Jane Williams, national clean air team chair with the Sierra Club, said.

“It’s very clear that first responders were completely unprepared for this fire. A common-sense risk management prevention program would have helped prevent the Chemtool disaster and would have protected first responders and the frontline community. We need to expand the risk management program to include facilities like Chemtool so that these disasters are prevented and so that communities are prepared when they do happen.”

The rules around risk management are set up to help protect residents living near industrial sites. In 2017, the EPA implemented a chemical disaster rule that includes provisions to protect worker and community safety from storage, use and accidental release of hazardous substances.

The rule was walked back by former President Donald Trump’s administration in 2019, and the federal rules have since been identified as an “action for review” by the current administration of President Joe Biden after he issued executive action on the matter.

Rockton residents and local activists say the mitigation efforts in response to the June 14 explosion at Chemtool prove that the risk management and prevention program must be expanded and improved.

“With no risk management prevention and response plan in place, our community has been left in an information void,” said Sierra Club Illinois Co-Chair of the Northwest River Valley Group Steven Hall. “We’re left asking what chemicals are in our air, water and soil? What about my kids and pets playing outside? Can I eat my vegetables? Why am I getting headaches and bloody noses?”

On July 9, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and the Illinois EPA announced samples collected at the site have confirmed air and water quality have not been affected by the Chemtool fire and the efforts to extinguish it.

The state environmental agency, with help from the Illinois National Guard, took ash, wipe, runoff and river samples from around the site of the fire and from the immediate area. All but one sample, a wipe sample located in close proximity to the Chemtool property, tested below the residential exposure limit.

The agency also collected samples from various locations in the community water supply after the fire. Each of the wells used as water sources for Rockton residents was sampled along with the finished water storage tank located adjacent to the fire. All samples were found to be in compliance with applicable drinking water and groundwater standards. No negative effects to the community water supply were identified.

Water sampling was conducted to determine whether runoff from the incident resulted in water quality impacts to the Rock River. Only one sample on the Rock River exceeded Illinois Pollution Control Board water quality standards, which has been documented by Illinois EPA. The increased level of carbon disulfide would decrease as it runs downriver.

“As our investigation continues, Illinois EPA remains committed to community residents and local leaders as we look to the remediation phase of this devastating fire,” Illinois EPA Director John Kim said. “Illinois EPA is also working closely with Attorney General (Kwame) Raoul’s office to ensure the full impact of this fire is documented and the company implements an approved plan to remove any hazardous material from the site.”

The Illinois Department of Public Health has brought in experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to augment the efforts of the local health department to monitor and identify potential health effects as a result of the fire.

A class-action lawsuit filed by Rockton residents is pending in Winnebago County Circuit Court, and the IEPA has referred its case to the Illinois attorney general’s office for legal action against Lubrizol, Chemtool’s parent company. The referral by the IEPA cites violations of the Illinois Environmental Protection Act and Illinois Pollution Control Board regulations related to chemical fire and release of pollutants to the atmosphere.

All sample results and further descriptions of sampling are available on the Illinois EPA website at bit.ly/2U12T9K.

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