Rockton evacuation order remains in place after chemical fire, mask mandate lifted

ROCKTON, Ill. — Winnebago County health officials say air quality levels have remained steady in the area near a chemical plant fire, allowing them to lift a mask mandate, but people who live near the plant are still not allowed to return home.

In an update provided Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Sandra Martell of the Winnebago County Health Department says the stable air quality is allowing them to remove a recommendation for people within three miles of the Chemtool plant in Rockton to wear masks. However, health officials say they are not ready to lift an evacuation order for people who live within one mile of the plant.

“The debris, the dust, the ash that has fallen. We are particularly concerned about returning individuals into that evacuation zone until we have a more thorough understanding of the composition so we can prepare homeowners for their return,” Martell said.

The evacuation order is remaining in place until the health department can determine what makes up the debris that fell across the area after the explosion and fire at the plant on Monday morning. Dr. Martell said they did not want to allow people back in their homes without also giving them guidance on how they can safely clean up the debris and do things like run their air conditioners without having to worry about particulate matter.

“We understand the distress, the trauma and the turmoil that this is causing for so many of our residents and businesses in the community but we are doing this as an utmost precaution,” Martell said.

Public health officials in Rock County are advising people with respiratory conditions in the City and Town of Beloit to pay attention to changing wind conditions over the next few days and take precautions.

Fire Chief Kirk Wilson says industrial firefighting teams continue to make good progress in putting out the fire, which has been burning at the plant since about 7 a.m. Monday. Wilson says people in the area can still expect to see smoke for the next several days as crews continue to work.

“We don’t know what the environmental impacts of this particular site is going to be in the next 5-10 years,” Wilson said. “We’re not sure. But that’s why it’s important for us to do our due diligence and to make sure what we are doing is not only safe for us today but for our future as well.”

The EPA says they are continuing to monitor air quality in the area around the clock.