Flames engulfed a a chemical plant in Northern Illinois on Monday, forcing the evacuation of neighbors, sending massive plumes of smoke into the sky and bringing threats of an “environmental nightmare,” authorities said.
Anyone living within one mile of the Chemtool Inc. plant in Rockton, Illinois, was ordered to vacate after flames were first reported at about 7 a.m CDT, police and fire officials said.
Explosions could be heard around the neighborhood, Rockton resident James Berger said.
“Oh yeah, and multiple ones,” said Berger, who lives a football field’s length from the burning plant. “Every time an explosion went off, the flames would go sky high.”
Cause of the fire was not immediately known.
“The building is pretty much consumed,” Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson told reporters. “We’re thinking that this is going to be a several-day event to have all of this product burned off. And that’s the best thing we can do right now.”
Firefighters ringed the site but plan to let flames to continue to burn.
The Rock River is just 300 meters west of the plant, and Wilson said fighting flames with water could bring dangerous runoff into that Mississippi River tributary.
“The main thing is that we don’t want an environmental nightmare to occur,” Wilson said. “So we stopped water operations at this point, we stooped suppression. We felt that it was in our best interest to let this product burn off.”
Chemtool — which lists Rockton as its headquarters, but also has offices in China, Belgium, Singapore and the U.K. — produces greases, lubricants, metal working fluids and cleaners, among other products.
A statement from Chemtool said all of its Rockton employees are safe.
“We have confirmed all on site are safe and accounted for,” according to the statement. “Our concern right now is for the safety of all our employees and the surrounding community.”
Rockton, a village of almost 7,500 residents, is just south of the Wisconsin border, about 80 miles southwest of Milwaukee and 95 miles northwest of Chicago.