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Keeping An Eye On Rock River After Chemical Fire


Months after the fire at the Chemtool facility in Rockton, Illinois, people in the community and beyond have been left trying to make sense of its effect on the environment – specifically the Rock River. It flows directly adjacent to the site of the weeks-long chemical fire.

Sanjay Sofat with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Bureau of Water said that five days of testing in the Rock River between June 15th and the 19th showed a range of different contaminants present in the Rock River.

“When we went out there, we were aware of an incident that the firefighting foam had gotten into the river,” said Sofat. ”So we went straight to that point, we took sample and of course, we found that PFAS, was present."

Sofat is referring to an incident early on in the firefighting operation. Lubrizol, the company that owns Chemtool, hired US Fire Pump, an industrial firefighting company. Its crew sprayed a mixture of 3,200 gallons of a PFAS based firefighting foam concentrate and more than 70,000 gallons of water over the Chemtool fire for about three hours.

PFAS are typically referred to as “forever chemicals.” PFAS is also shorthand for a family of some 5,000 synthesized chemicals that are manufactured at scale for their resistance to oil and water.

“So it happened, there was a problem. And then, in fact, on the 17th, when it was happening, there were booms installed, extraction was going on to the extent it was possible,” said Sofat. “That is why you will see on 18th when we went back to the examples, we did not find any issue and same is true for 19, that downstream sampling did not show any PFAS.”

Sofat says that by all indications the Rock River is safe. But some experts like Sonya Lunder, a senior toxics advisor with the Sierra Club, are still concerned about the presence of any PFAS in our waterways.

“They did put some filters and some booms and stuff in the river near the facility to try to catch stuff on the surface. But basically, you know, now we're looking at a point where the chemicals have been put into the river downstream from the sewage treatment plant,” said Lunder. “And there, we have to live with it, there's not an easy way to treat that water, get them out of the sediments, and really go back to an uncontaminated site.”

Lunder says that the same qualities that make PFAS useful in consumer products and other industrial processes also have some unintended consequences when they interact with the environment.

“The downside of that intense reactivity is that the chemicals basically never break down in the environment,” said Lunder. “When they get into our bodies, and they're found in almost every American, they're found in very high concentrations in your blood, and they stay there for a long time.”

It’s possible PFAS were already present in the Rock River before the use of the firefighting foam during the Chemtool fire. But soon after the fire, there was a significant spike detected in the Rockton Sewage Treatment plant’s outflow into the Rock River. The concentration of PFAS was recorded at over 5,000 parts per trillion – roughly 50 times higher than in any other testing site on the river.

The IEPA maintains that while some concentrations of PFAS were detected during the first rounds of sampling, that by the 19th it was no longer detected. The IEPA has not conducted any further testing of the Rock River since June 19th and has no plans for further PFAS sampling.

The Sierra Club collected samples from the Rock River nearly a week after the last IEPA samples were collected. It then submitted them for sampling at the same Michigan-based laboratory that the IEPA used.

“And the Top Assay told us that there was roughly twice as much PFAS in the river than we were able to measure or Illinois was able to measure with traditional techniques,” said Lunder.

The environmental organization sprung for more sophisticated PFAS testing called TOP Assay, which can detect PFAS precursors that standard analysis can’t. Sofat did not provide a comment on the Sierra Club’s sampling results without further information on their testing protocol.

And, it’s not just the PFAS. For Olivia Dorothy at American Rivers, any pollutants present in the Rock River could adversely affect ecosystems, including wildlife, that depend on healthy waters.

“You know, any type of contamination that might be spilling into the river, whether it's old or new, you know, that needs to be carefully examined, and actions should be taken to make sure that that that gets cleaned up properly,” said Dorothy.

For Dorothy this incident is especially frustrating. Because Lubrizol has not released the list of chemicals and additives present in the facility during the fire earlier this summer, there is no clear roadmap for testing of the Rock River.

“Whereas if we know, the limited range of possible contaminants that could be in there, we can, you know, take a much more cost effective and quicker monitoring approach of the area,” said Dorothy.

The earliest Lubrizol could be made to disclose that information is later this month during their next scheduled court date.

In the meantime, the IEPA says that release of the details of Lubrizol’s remediation plan and removal of four storage tanks holding tens of thousands of gallons of liquids on the Chemtool site are waiting for litigation between the state and Lubrizol to wrap up.

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.