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Illinois sues owner of plant where fire prompted evacuations

About 1,000 Rockton residents were evacuated in June when the Chemtool plant caught on fire.

CHICAGO — Illinois prosecutors on Friday sued the owner of a chemical plant where a fire last month sent dark smoke and ash into the air for days and prompted evacuations, saying the company should be held accountable for air and water pollution and hazards that still exist.

An estimated 1,000 residents were evacuated from the area around the Chemtool plant near Rockton in northern Illinois after the June 14 fire, which authorities say was accidentally started. The company manufactures lubricating oil, grease and other fluids.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Winnebago County State’s Attorney J. Hanley argue in the lawsuit that the fire posed “a substantial danger to the public's health and welfare and the environment." They say tanks holding about 100,000 gallons of petroleum product still being stored at the facility have been compromised and pose a “significant threat” to the area, including the nearby Rock River.

They want the company to pay for costs the state and county incurred responding to the fire, take action to avoid future release of pollutants and pay a penalty.

“The Chemtool fire rattled the community, displaced residents, and took the combined resources and efforts of several fire departments to get under control. Although the flames have been extinguished, the hazard posed to the public and the environment continues, and Chemtool owes the community more information,” Raoul said. “My office, in collaboration with the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office will ensure that Chemtool is held responsible for evaluating the extent of the contamination and thoroughly remediating the damage.”

Lubrizol, which owns the Chemtool plant, said in a statement this week that it has started to outline the scope of the site cleanup and working with local and state authorities on a plan.

“We remain devastated by the fire at our Rockton Chemtool site and the impact on the local community,” spokesman Cody Adams said Friday in a response to the lawsuit. “Throughout this event, we have been working with state and federal regulators to address their concerns and the needs of residents and will continue to do so.”

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said Friday that samples taken from the area show air and water, including in all wells used as a water source for Rockton residents, are safe. The agency worked with the Illinois National Guard to conduct the sampling, as well as with other state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.