Evacuation order lifted after Illinois chemical plant blast

ROCKTON, Ill. — Residents near a northern Illinois chemical plant were cleared to return to their homes Friday, four days after officials issued an evacuation order following a massive explosion at the plant.

Rockton fire chief Kirk Wilson lifted the evacuation order that had been in effect since Monday for a one-mile radius of the Chemtool Inc. plant. Businesses in the area will be allowed to reopen.

The fire sent t hick black smoke thousands of feet in the air and caused debris to rain on the area expected to keep smoldering for days. Winnebago County Health Department said in a news release that soil, water and air samples collected over the last few days indicate no dangerous material as a result of the explosion at the lubricant manufacturing plant.

“They do not have the compounds or chemicals that would cause any concern,” the department’s administrator, Dr. Sandra Martell, said of the 40 samples that were sent to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency lab in Springfield. “But, there will be ongoing testing at various sites.”

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said it was continuing to test the nearby Rock River and area groundwater for fire-related contamination. State and federal officials said previously that a company hired to help extinguish the fire had sprayed foam Tuesday made with toxic chemicals known as PFAS before Wilson ordered a switch to a different foam that didn’t contain the compounds.

Although foams containing PFAS are legal in most of the U.S., the federal Environmental Protection Agency says they’re typically used to extinguish highly flammable or combustible fires involving gas tankers and oil refineries. The chemicals have been linked to health problems including cancer and liver damage.

Meanwhile, officials said there are still hot spots at the site and fire suppression activities were continuing.

The health department warned residents who do return home to clean outdoor cooking grills before using them and inspect air conditioning units before turning them on. Also, residents were urged to throw away any food items or water that may have been exposed to smoke soot and to keep their children from playing with items covered with soot, ash and debris.

While the cause of the explosion remains under investigation, Wilson said there was no immediate indication of any suspicious or criminal activity involved. He also said further review would be conducted when the fire is completely extinguished.

Nobody at the plant or in the nearby community, located near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, was injured, officials have said.