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Fire at Illinois chemical plant could cause 'environmental nightmare,' fire chief says

Evacuations were ordered near the plant, owned by Chemtool Inc., which produces greases, lubricants, metal working fluids and cleaners.

Flames engulfed a chemical plant in Northern Illinois on Monday, forcing the evacuation of neighbors, sending massive plumes of smoke into the sky and threatening an "environmental nightmare," authorities said.

Anyone living within a mile of the Chemtool Inc. plant in Rockton was ordered to vacate after flames were reported at about 7 a.m. CT, police and fire officials said.

Explosions could be heard around the neighborhood, James Berger of Rockton said.

"Oh yeah, and multiple ones," said Berger, who lives a football field's length from the burning plant. "Every time an explosion went off, the flames would go sky high."

Cause of the fire was not immediately known.

"The building is pretty much consumed," Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson told reporters. "We're thinking that this is going to be a several-day event to have all of this product burned off. And that's the best thing we can do right now."

Firefighters ringed the site but plan to let flames to continue to burn.

Wilson said fighting flames with water could bring dangerous runoff into the Rock River, a Mississippi River tributary a little over 300 yards west of the plant.

"The main thing is that we don't want an environmental nightmare to occur," Wilson said. "So we stopped water operations at this point, we stooped suppression. We felt that it was in our best interest to let this product burn off."

During a Monday afternoon news conference, Wilson said it wasn't clear what started the fire, nor is it clear when it will be extinguished. "Please just be patient with us," he said.

Chemtool — which lists Rockton as its headquarters and has offices in China, Belgium, Singapore and the U.K. — produces greases, lubricants, metal working fluids and cleaners, among other products.

Officials said they were worried that chemicals like sulfuric acid, nitrogen and lead could spread through smoke, though ground-level monitors so far showed no impact on air quality.

Still, Dr. Sandra Martell, administrator of the Winnebago County Health Department, asked people to wear a mask if they need to be outside.

Chemtool said in a statement that all of its Rockton employees are safe.

"We have confirmed all on site are safe and accounted for," the statement said. "Our concern right now is for the safety of all our employees and the surrounding community."

Rockton, a village of almost 7,500 residents just south of the Wisconsin border, is about 80 miles southwest of Milwaukee and 95 miles northwest of Chicago.

Tim Stelloh contributed.