Chemical plant explosion causes significant fire, mass evacuations in US

An explosion at a chemical plant in northern Illinois, US on June 14 caused a large fire and resulted in an evacuation order lasting for four days as firefighters fought the blaze. The incident happened at a plant belonging to Chemtool Inc., a lubricants and grease products manufacturer, in Rockton, northwest of Chicago.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) said it had deployed two of its senior leadership to the scene and would engage with Federal, State and local emergency responders, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others to determine the conditions and circumstances that led to the incident and to identify the cause or causes so similar incidents might be prevented. The CSB said that early assessments appeared to indicate that the incident was a fire event and not a chemical process safety event.

All 70 workers at the facility were evacuated without injury after emergency services were called to the scene at around 07:00 local time. One fire fighter suffered a minor injury and was transported to a local hospital for evaluation. According to local news outlets, the plumes of smoke caused by the fire were so large that they were picked up by weather radars.

The Rockton Police Department issued an alert at around 08:45 warning local residents of the mandatory evacuation of homes and businesses near the Chemtool plant. The evacuation zone was expanded from a one-mile radius to two miles later in the day as emergency services encouraged people to wear face masks to prevent inhalation of smoke and soot.

Firefighters had initially planned to allow volatile substances to burn off due to the facility’s close proximity to the Rock River. There was significant concern surrounding release of firefighting water and suppression foam into the waterway. This initial approach was later reassessed and emergency services began to berm and boom the access to the river and extinguish the remaining blaze.

The mandatory evacuation order was lifted after four days on June 18 with residents able to return home and businesses allowed to re-open. The fire was expected to continue smouldering for several more days.

Chemtool is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Lubrizol Corporate which acquired the company in 2013. In 2019, a French subsidiary of Lubrizol was charged with pollution and failing to meet safety standards after an explosion and fire at its plant in Rouen, northern France. The blaze at the lubricant plant in September and October 2019 produced a thick black cloud for several days that spread across the region and caused nausea, headaches, and vomiting amongst locals.


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