Illinois homeowners file class-action lawsuit over massive chemical fire

·4 min read

Homeowners forced to evacuate their property near the massive Rockton chemical fire that burned for days last week have filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status against the owners of the industrial lubricant plant.

The June 14 fire at the Chemtool plant near Rockford spewed black smoke over an area so large it was visible on weather radar, prompting orders that residents and businesses within a mile vacate their properties during a protracted battle to bring the chemical fire under control.

The lawsuit was filed Friday in Winnebago County Circuit Court on behalf of Stephanie Mackey and Nick Migliore, who were displaced from their Rockton home of four years, along with residents from at least 150 other homes, the lawsuit alleges.

“As a result of the explosion and fire, Rockton residents and others have experienced nuisance-level discomforts (respiratory difficulty, malodorous smell), their properties were covered with debris, and they generally have been impeded from using and enjoying their property, including their outdoor spaces,” the lawsuit alleges.

The Chemtool plant makes lubricating greases and is a major employer in Rockton, a town of about 7,500 between Rockford and Beloit near the Wisconsin state line. Founded in 1963, Chemtool is based in Rockton, with additional production facilities in California and Brazil. Chemtool was acquired by Lubrizol, a Berkshire Hathaway company, in 2013.

The lawsuit names both Chemtool and Lubrizol as defendants.

“We are devastated by this event and deeply regret the disruption and inconvenience that it has caused area residents,” Lubrizol spokeswoman Alicia Gauer said in an email.

Gauer said the company is working on a site remediation plan, but expects “a total loss” of the Chemtool plant. The company has arranged for removal of fire-related debris, posted reimbursement claim forms on its website for fire damages, and while testing has so far shown “no impact to water systems,” is offering bottled water for residents with private wells in the evacuation area, she said.

Lubrizol issued a statement on its website downplaying any health risks caused by the nearly weeklong burn-off at the chemical plant, which was destroyed.

“We are confident that the materials burned in the fire pose no health risk in the short or long-term, other than the short-term irritation one would normally experience in the presence of smoke,” the company said in its post.

The fire June 14 was called a “catastrophic day” by Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson. Dozens of fire departments from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin responded to the call. More than 50 employees were evacuated from the building, and about 1,000 nearby residents were ordered to leave their homes and businesses.

Black smoke from the fire was visible for miles, as debris fell to the ground across a broad swath of land. Winnebago County public health officials asked residents within 3 miles of the fire to wear face masks and use gloves to handle any waste that fell on their property.

Edward Manzke, a Naperville attorney representing Mackey and Migliore in the lawsuit, said they were allowed to return to their home, which is less than a mile from the site, on Friday. The couple stayed with relatives outside of Rockton for the week, Manzke said.

When they returned, they found huge chunks of burned debris, oil spots, and a filmy buildup on their vehicles and lawn, Manzke said. “It’s like something out of a disaster movie,” he said.

The lawsuit alleges Chemtool and Lubrizol were negligent in failing to prevent the fire, caused a nuisance and trespassed on nearby properties by contaminating them with debris.

The lawsuit is seeking monetary damages for the “lost use and enjoyment” of the homeowners’ properties, and an injunction requiring Chemtool and Lubrizol to “remediate” the damage.

Manzke said the aim of the lawsuit goes beyond monetary compensation.

“These folks deserve some answers and some information,” Manzke said. “They need to understand the full nature, extent and duration of the threats that they have been exposed to, and whether or not they’re continuing to be exposed to those threats. Ultimately, when we get those answers, these folks need to be compensated for what they’ve been living through.”

A separate lawsuit filed Monday in Winnebago County Circuit Court against Chemtool and Lubrizol on behalf of Jolene Smith and Thomas Henry, who were among those displaced from their Rockton house by the fire, also seeks monetary damages for alleged negligence by the plant.

In addition to fallout from the smoke and debris, the lawsuit raises concerns about foam containing toxic compounds that was allegedly used to suppress the fire.

“Nothing has been done to test the ground on any of these homes,” said Peter Flowers, a St. Charles attorney representing Smith and Henry. “These people have a 2-year-old child who plays outside every day. It’s not necessarily the things that you see that are damaging. It’s the things you don’t see that could damage you.”

Gauer said the company is aware of the lawsuits but does not comment on legal matters.

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