Rockton residents shaken by Chemtool fire find deposits of metal debris

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ROCKTON – As residents returned home after a massive industrial fire at Chemtool, some discovered tiny metal flakes sprinkled on their properties in addition to ash and large chunks of debris.

Metallic material tends to crumble when handled.

But Dan Enderle, a Prairie Street resident, an art teacher at Whitman Post Elementary School for 20 years, was surprised to find the hard-to-see debris could be picked up with a kitchen magnet. Fearing the potential health hazard the flakes could pose to their teenage children and three dogs, his wife, Andrea, purchased a magnetic roller, the kind contractors sometimes use to pick up nails after a job.

Enderle used the magnetic roller to remove bags of material from his yard and garden, crisscrossing his yard with it as if the roller were a lawn mower. He bagged the flakes of metal debris with gloved hands.

“It’s nauseating to me that all of these things are in our garden,” said Enderle, who is an avid gardener.

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Enderle used the roller twice at his home, once for an elderly neighbor’s house and loaned it to a few other neighbors who also lived a few blocks from the blaze. Enderle said he collected bags of materials that were picked up by contractors employed by Chemtool to help with the cleanup. Chemtool also cleaned the yard, but it still found flakes this week.

He used the roller at his in-laws’ house a few blocks away, but he did not find the metal debris there.

The Winnebago County Health Department did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.

In an email to the Rockford Register Star, Lubrizol spokesman Cody Adams said tests so far show that the industrial fire – which has set off explosions, clouds of dust and a long plume of smoke – did not create a health risk beyond what other large fires would produce. Lubrizol is the parent company of Chemtool, which produces industrial greases and lubricants.

“Multiple independent experts are doing very regular air, water and soil sampling in the area to monitor this event,” Adams said. “To date, analyzes do not show any negative environmental impact or health risk other than the short-term irritation one would normally experience in the presence of smoke.”

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Adams encouraged residents to contact Clean Harbors to remove fire-related debris and to clean surfaces. He said residents can call 877-552-8942 to request service or get more information. If residents discover additional debris in their home and they have already had their property toured by Clean Harbors, they can call again for additional cleaning.

Sierra Club toxics policy adviser Sonya Lunder said residents should be careful with metal flakes and avoid direct contact with them. Lunder said on Wednesday that scientists at the Sierra Club, a nonprofit environmental group, were still analyzing test results released by the Illinois EPA.

Should residents be concerned about these materials and whether they pose a health hazard?

“The whole facility blew up, so there were parts of the building that were wiped out and thrust into the air or burnt and became airborne particles,” Lunder said. “It’s really common. We see people posting all over the Facebook group that they collect this material and keep it. It is the responsibility of the county, state and federal government to answer this question.”

Dan Enderle shows off a magnetic rake that collected metal flakes in the yard of his Prairie Street home on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 in Rockton.  Enderle and other residents around the Chemtool plant reported that flakes and other debris fell on their property during the fire that broke out at the plant on June 14.

Although Enderle loves his home in a historic district that was once part of a farm and loves his community, disaster has rocked him.

He usually grows all his family’s tomatoes, but had to remove them after the fire. He has a plan for soil remediation using sunflowers to absorb toxins in his garden.

Enderle signed one of many lawsuits that have been filed accusing Chemtool of negligence. But he wonders if he should stay in the house and neighborhood he has lived in for 15 years.

“I want to stay,” Enderle said. “At the same time, it’s the first time since I’ve been here that I’ve asked if I want to be here?

Jeff Kolkey: [email protected]; @jeffkolkey


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