International Paper on Thursday released the preliminary findings of its investigation into the January 22 explosion at the company’s Pensacola Mill in Cantonment.
The incident released a mixture of wood chips, wood fiber and black liquor — a manufacturing byproduct — into the air, coating nearby streets, vehicles, and homes. A team of over 100 contractors spent several weeks remediating approximately 150 affected homes.
“The findings indicate that an explosive atmosphere was created by a combination of off-gasses normally produced in the pulping process and air introduced to maintain pressure while the vessel was not in operation,” the company said Thursday. “The explosive nature of the off-gasses and air combination was likely related to the extended period of mill down time prior to the incident where no chips and liquor were flowing into the digester.”
Company officials said that the gas mixture — combined with one of several possible ignition sources — provided the necessary conditions for an explosion to occur. “The unusual set of circumstances set in motion a chain of events unlike any that International Paper had ever seen or heard of,” the company said.
Officials say they’ve taken steps to ensure a similar incident doesn’t happen again at any of the company’s plants.
“The company has implemented enhanced procedures and protections across the entire mill system and has also taken the step to share this information industry-wide, to ensure enhanced safety measures are in place across the entire industry,” the statement read.
The explosion caused an estimated $50 million in damages and shuttered the plant, which employs around 450. The company continued to pay employees during the downtime, and the plant has since resumed limited operations.
“We continue to dedicate all resources to a safe return to full operations, but it is important we follow all responsible steps to do so,” the company said. “Hundreds of mill team members are working safely and diligently to get the facility fully operational.”
The company declined to make officials available for interviews following Thursday’s statement and said no additional details would be provided at this time.