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Chemtool Sampling Data Translated


A local environmental enthusiast has set out to decipher the air quality sampling data coming out of the Rockton Chemtool Fire.

Jillian Neece works at the Severson Dells Nature Center. She grew up about two miles south of the Chemtool site. The federal and Illinois Environmental Protection agencies have been monitoring the air quality around the plant since the fire. When they began to release sampling information to the public, Neece says it became clear to her that most people might not be able to make heads or tails of the results.

"When I saw all these EPA documents, and tables, numbers, acronyms and things coming out, I knew that if I put my mind to it, I would be able to understand that, but a lot of people don't have the time or the energy, or the background in science needed to be able to decipher through those tables," said Neece. "But it's still information that everyone really should know. And it's information that everyone wants to know."

The EPA was onsite and began sampling the air quality some six hours after the fire started. Air quality monitoring stations were set up around Rockton and the surrounding areas to gauge the impact of the fire on the air quality. The EPA has been testing for volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide and particulate matter which Neece says is like and ash or soot.

"So, these are super, super small; they're not things that you can see; the EPA has two different measurements that they're looking into. One of them measures any particulate matter that's less than 10 micrometers in size," said Neece."And just for an idea of how small that is, there's about 1000 micrometers in a centimeter, and a centimeter is just about the width of your fingernail. So that's 1000 micrometers. And they're measuring anything smaller than 10."

The EPA is also measuring even smaller particulate matter, which is 2.5 micrometers and smaller. Currently, the EPA has released air quality sampling data for the dates between June 14th and the 23rd. Neece said that in several cases, the level of some compounds exceeded federal safety standards.

"But from what we've seen, they just kind of spiked and then went back down. So, what sounds really scary, is not as quite scary as it sounds since they were just spikes," said Neece.

For example, air quality sampling around the Old Settlers Day Festival in Rockton showed high levels of particulate matter on the second and third days of the event. But Neece says there is some data that the agencies haven’t released yet.

"We know that the Illinois EPA has collected some soil samples. We know that they've collected water samples from groundwater and from the Rock River," said Neece. "And so, with those, basically what we're doing now is waiting for the test to be completed."

And these tests may take a while. Neece says that these water quality tests can take anywhere from two days to six weeks. And after that, those results have to be analyzed. So, someone looking for answers may have to sit tight for a while. This means that residents of the area do not yet know what kind of contamination, if any, is present in the Rock River and the groundwater.

In the meantime, Neece says she’ll be on standby to help translate the next set of data.

Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.