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Dozens of homes evacuated after fire destroys Illinois chemical plant

By
Don Jacobson & Daniel Uria

June 14 (UPI) -- Dozens of homes in northern Illinois were evacuated Monday after a fire destroyed a chemical plant, producing a thick plume of smoke that could be seen for many miles.

Fire officials in Rockton, Ill., issued a mandatory evacuation order affecting about 150 homes near a Lubrizol Corp., facility in the town of about 7,600 along the Wisconsin border 100 miles northwest of Chicago.

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The evacuation was ordered moments after first responders arrived at the scene at 7 a.m. to find the Chemtool facility completely consumed by flames as a thick, black plume of smoke spread hundreds of feet overhead, according to Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson.

"The fire was through the roof when we arrived, and the cause remains unknown at this point," he told reporters. "Everything is still under investigation."

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About 70 plant employees were safely evacuated from the facility while one firefighter sustained minor injuries, Wilson said.

Despite the massive smoke plume -- big enough to be seen on radar and on satellite weather images -- there was no danger to people at ground level from contaminants, the chief added.

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Dr. Sandra Martell, public health administrator for Winnebago County, urged residents in the area to wear a mask and avoid picking up waste related to the fire that may fall from the sky.

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"We do not know what that waste contains. Please do not handle it with bare hands. Use a shovel, use gloves and sequester it -- meaning keep it separate from your household waste -- so we know how to properly dispose of it. It's very important. We are reliant on our groundwater in this community and keeping that safe is of utmost importance to us."

Emergency officials opted to let the fire burn out rather than douse it with water because of possible contamination from the runoff reaching the nearby Rock River. The Chemtool plant produces oil-based lubricants.

"We do not yet know what caused this incident, but we will be working with local authorities and with our own risk management team to determine what happened and identify any corrective actions," a Lubrizol spokeswoman said in a statement issued to WIFR-TV.

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Wilson said it is likely to be a "several-day event" as the city waits for the product to "burn off."

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