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Inspection shows Chemtool plant was not completely equipped or properly protected by sprinklers

ROCKTON (WREX) -- The Chemtool plant is still smoldering as the fire enters its fifth day, but a November inspection obtained by 13 Investigates shows the plant was not fully covered by a sprinkler system and parts of it were not properly protected.

A fire sprinkler inspection, done yearly, was completed at the plant on November 20, 2020. The document asks "Is building completely sprinklered?" The inspector, employed by a sprinkler contractor that is redacted because of a non-disclosure agreement, said no. The document also asks "Are all new additions and building changes properly protected according to information furnished by owner or owner's representative?" The inspector also answered no.

"In my opinion, a properly installed and maintained fire sprinkler system would've kept this fire in check or probably even suppressed it until the point where emergency personnel could've arrived on scene." said Keith Woller, business agent for Sprinklerfitters Local 669, who confirmed the inspection document is legitimate.

When asked about the sprinklers and fire suppression system at a Thursday press conference, Lubrizol Vice President of Operations, Bill Snyder, said everything was up to code at the time of the fire.

"All the knowledge that we had on hand, our understanding is that the building met all the codes and regulations," Snyder said. "Within that, part of the building had suppression, other parts of the building did not."

When asked if that suppression was foam or water, Snyder said he did not have specifics.

According to Woller, the only side of the building that had a sprinkler system was the side with the office. He said the contractor had started the process to put a sprinkler system in the other side of the building.

"The contractor has already done the prints and ordered the material and everything that needed to be done to get that plant sprinkled," Woller said. "And I believe they were still waiting on permits and paperwork to get started. It's weird timing."

The inspection report shows the water flow, condition, and service of the sprinklers the plant did have were satisfactory.

Three copies of the inspection are given, one goes to the company, one to the contractor and one to the local fire department. In this case, the Rockton Fire Protection District.

In an email sent to 13 Investigates Friday afternoon, Lubrizol Senior Director of Global Communications, Alicia Gauer, says the plant did not have sprinklers in the area where the company believes the fire started, though it did have sprinklers in other areas of the site. Her full statement is at the bottom of this story.

"Unfortunately the magnitude of the fire was overwhelming," Gauer said.

Gauer also highlighted that the company made more than $70 million in investments to the Rockton site, half of that to safety enhancements.

"It is impossible to tell what might have prevented this event until the investigation is complete," she added. "We are cooperating with all investigating authorities and will apply all learnings to our future operations."

13 Investigates also reached out to the Rockton Fire Protection District to ask if it had seen the inspection report. The Winnebago County Emergency Management Center responded with the following statement:

"Our focus at this point remains suppressing hotspots in the fire, ensuring residents return safely to their homes and continuing to test air, water and land. The investigation into the cause of the fire and potential contributing factors is in its infancy. Updates on the investigation will be provided when available."

The fire itself now burns in its fifth day, residents within the one-mile evacuation zone were allowed to go home Friday morning.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but does not appear to be criminal or suspicious, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"Again, this is going to take some time," Chief Kirk Wilson with the Rockton Fire Protection District said.

Full statement from Alicia Gauer, Lubrizol Senior Director of Global Communications:
"We have a culture committed to safe workplaces, which includes making ongoing safety-focused capital investments across our entire global network. This includes our Rockton site.

Since acquiring Chemtool, Lubrizol has invested over $70 million in the Rockton site, with roughly half directly supporting safety enhancements that focused on worker safety, safe operation, and risk mitigation.  We are proud of the improvements we have enabled with this focus. The Rockton site was in compliance with applicable regulations, and regular visits were made by the proper authorities. We did not have sprinklers in the immediate area we believe the fire started based on our to-date investigation, though we did have sprinklers in other areas of the site. Unfortunately the magnitude of the fire was overwhelming.

It is impossible to tell what might have prevented this event until the investigation is complete.  We are cooperating with all investigating authorities and will apply all learnings to our future operations. "

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James Stratton

Breane Lyga

Breane Lyga is the content manager at 13 WREX. She joined the team in 2015 as the 5, 6 and 10PM news producer after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She was 13 WREX’s assignment editor from 2017 to 2018.

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