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Nearly two full days after an explosion occurred at International Paper’s mill plant in Cantonment, Fla. near Pensacola, officials from International Paper and local, state, and federal agencies held a press conference to give updates on the ongoing efforts to remediate and clean up the areas impacted by the explosion.

The Cantonment Digester Incident Unified Command was formed in the aftermath of the explosion and is made up of officials from International Paper, Escambia County, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Department of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s going to take some time,” said Chris Russell, federal on-scene coordinator with the United States Environmental Protection Agency. “We have about 100 staff out in the field doing assessments to remediate impacted areas.”

The plant experienced what International Paper spokesperson Thomas Ryan called a “manufacturing process failure,” causing “significant structural damage to the largest pulp digester as well as the power house.”

Officials did not give any new updates on the events that led up to and caused the rupture, primarily discussing the health, environmental, and operational impacts of the explosion.

“Safety is our primary concern”

The EPA is overseeing the cleanup efforts and assessing the conditions inside the plant and in the local community, Russell said.

Addressing concerns of the community, investigators said the wood chips, wood fiber and black liquor substance released during the explosion are not toxic to the public but stressed that if anyone comes into contact with the particulates to immediately wash their hands with soap and water.

Russell said teams have gone door-to-door in neighborhoods surrounding the mill to let people know of the current situation and that contractors will be performing cleanup in the local area.

“We’ll have crews pressure washing and scrubbing,” said Russell. “We have about 100 contractors out there working in the neighborhoods.”

International Paper and government officials hold a joint press conference at International Paper’s Pensacola Mill in Cantonment, Fla. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

Officials said they are currently planning to evaluate each property in the local area to assess and, if needed, remediate contamination resulting from the explosion.

“We’re going to look at each property individually,” Russell said. “Each parcel will be different. We’re going to set background standards to evaluate how contaminated each property could be and how to get them back to the condition they were before the explosion.”

Russell added methods to remediate homeowner’s properties could include removing and replacing soil on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s scary because it’s out there,” Russell said. “This is something we have to be concerned about.”

Officials are also monitoring air quality and possible pollution to local waterways.

“We are actively monitoring air quality in the community,” said Dr. Paul Nony of the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health. “We will continue monitoring until the cleanup process is complete.”

Escambia County Water Quality and Land Management staff are actively testing local waterways for potential environmental impacts.

“We are monitoring areas such as vegetation and aquatic life that could be potentially impacted from the material,” said Shawn Hamilton, district Director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “We will monitor surface waters and the downstream impacts. We will make sure any cleanup plans adhere to state and federal standards.”

Unknown when mill will reopen

Asked about the future of the mill, International Paper mill manager Brett DeJong said it’s not yet known what will happen.

“Currently we are not in operation as we address this issue,” said DeJong. “The company is committed to reestablishing operation of its facility. Exactly how long that will take is still yet to be determined.”

International Paper’s Pensacola Mill was originally opened in 1941 by the Florida Pulp and Paper Company; it became part of International Paper in 2000. The mill currently has around 450 employees.

International Paper’s Pensacola Mill in Cantonment, Fla. (Special to The Pulse)

In 2014, the company announced it would invest nearly $100 million into its Pensacola plant to improve energy efficiencies and enhance the plant’s work environment. The company’s plan is supported by $5 million in ad valorem tax abatements and infrastructure improvements and included an incentive package of $3 million from the Oil Spill Recovery Act and $2 million in funding from the Florida Department of Transportation.

Janice Holmes, communications director for the Pensacola mill, said in 2014 that planned improvements would include training funding, local infrastructure improvements and investment incentives by the company.

“Our immediate priority is to get people back to work,” said DeJong.

Medical line set up for residents

International Paper has set up a special medical line for residents concerned about the potential health effects of the materials discharged from the plant during Sunday’s incident.

The line, which includes prerecorded messages from Dr. Fred Kohanna, MD, a specialist in the field of occupational and environmental medicine, is accessible by dialing (855) 859-2056 or (404) 537-3406 and entering the conference ID 59722336.

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