Editorial: Start now on chemical fire cleanup. What’s the long-term plan?

·2 min read

At least everyone got out alive. That’s the only silver lining from those dark, billowing clouds of dust and debris soaring into the heavens during Monday’s blaze at a Rockton factory.

The early morning fire at Chemtool Inc. near Rockford sent plumes of black smoke across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, triggering an evacuation of nearby residents and prompting Gov. J.B. Pritzker to issue an emergency order deploying the Illinois National Guard. All week, firefighters remained on the scene as the plant’s charred shell continued to burn and smolder.

The plant, according to Rockford news stations, stored nitrogen, antifreeze, lead, sulfuric acid and other chemicals. While officials have said air quality measurements have come back normal, it’s hard to imagine there will be no damaging environmental effects from the dayslong plume and what it leaves behind. The company is already facing citations from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for pollution-related violations. Foam used to help extinguish the fire contained toxic chemicals that experts say will be difficult to keep from seeping into the groundwater. This is the beginning of a long road of bureaucracy and legal action to be sure.

Residents who were evacuated from their homes face the greatest challenges. “Can they power-wash? What can they use to remove some of the sticky solvent that they’ve seen? How do they treat their swimming pools? Can animals and pets be let outside? What about their children playing outside? How to restart their air conditioners and those kinds of things,” Winnebago County Health Department Administrator Sandra Martell told the Rockford Register Star. “Until we have a better understanding we are maintaining the evacuation zone of 1 mile.”

This also should be the beginning of a combined state and local effort to deal with what is sure to become a massive brownfield. The plant, a significant employer in the region, burned for days. It already looks like a melted city of steel and aluminum. Let’s get started on a remediation plan. The state runs a brownfield remediation program. Can it be applied here?

Officials said they’re committed to monitoring air and soil quality, and the nearby Rock River, for safety concerns. Chemtool’s company leaders have apologized for the fire, which remains under investigation. They say they will continue to pay employees who suddenly are out of a job. They’ve called the situation “heartbreaking.”

That’s true. What would be more heartbreaking would be a permanent loss — an abandoned and toxic site that sits near neighborhoods, schools and other workplaces — with no hope for redevelopment. Let’s get started on “what’s next,” now.

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