Article by Derek Cosson, January 22, 2017
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A large explosion took place Sunday evening at the International Paper mill in Cantonment, Fla. near Pensacola, with residents reportedly hearing the explosion as far away as Pace and Warrington.
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.”
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.
Officials don’t yet know the exact cause of the explosion, the full extent of the damage to the mill, or the possible long-term impact on its operations. The mill is not operating as of Monday afternoon.
Here’s what we do know so far:
All mill employees accounted for
All mill employees have been accounted for with no injuries or fatalities, according to International Paper officials.
Emergency crews, environmental authorities still on scene
Escambia County Emergency Communications began receiving calls about the incident at 7:38 p.m. As first responders arrived on scene, they reported a total loss of power at the mill but no active fire.
As of 9 a.m. Monday, personnel from the Escambia County Sherriff’s Office, Florida Highway Patrol, Escambia County Fire Rescue, the State Fire Marshal, Florida Department of Transportation, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are on scene. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has also reportedly dispatched personnel to the site.
Escambia County Water Quality and Land Management Staff are testing local waterways for potential environmental impacts.
Roads remain closed
The Florida Highway Patrol said Monday morning that U.S. Highway 29 remains closed from Muskogee Road south to Tate Road. Muskogee Road remains closed between Jacks Branch Road and Highway 29, and County Road 95A is closed between Woodbury Place and Muskogee Road.
Crews are still working to clear the roads and openings will be announced as they occur, officials said. Motorists are asked to avoid the area if possible.
“The process of roadway cleanup includes placing sand on the roadway and collecting the mixture of sand, pulp and paste, containerizing the material and transporting it to a staging area at International Paper,” said Escambia County spokesperson Joy Tsubooka in a statement. “pH testing is being conducted to ensure cleanup was effective and to ensure that the roadway is safe for drivers.”
“US 29 will remain closed until work crews can wash the roadway,” Florida Highway Patrol officials said in a statement. “The chemical is of a soap type base chemical, and it is unknown what type of reaction the chemical will have when moisture is introduced. The roadway could become slippery, and cause a hazard to the roadway and motorists.”
The Florida Highway Patrol reported two vehicle crashes on Sunday night in the vicinity of the explosion.
FHP is recommending those headed southbound on U.S. 29 detour via County Road 196 (Barrineau Park Road), County Road 97 (Jacks Branch Road/Muskogee Road/Highway 97), and West Kingsfield Road. Northbound traffic is recommended to detour via the reverse.
Officials issue statements regarding ash, chemicals
“The incident released a mixture of wood fiber, water and pulping liquor into the surrounding community,” International Paper said in a statement released Monday afternoon. “We have engaged contractors to develop and implement plans to clean up and dispose of the discharged material as quickly as possible. We are providing all necessary support and resources to our local community and residents as we work through the clean-up.”
“Our primary focus is on ensuring the health and safety of our employees, contractors and neighbors and on the clean-up of the affected areas and property,” the statement added.
A statement issued Monday by the Florida Highway Patrol confirmed the substance on area roadways contains “black liquor,” an industrial byproduct, noting that it is “a skin, eye and respiratory irritant.”
“If you come in contact with the pulp material (which is a sticky substance), it is advised that you immediately wash your hands with warm or cold water and vinegar,” International Paper said in an earlier statement. “Avoid contact with your eyes and mouth. If your vehicle comes in contact with the pulp material or ash, you are encouraged to wash your vehicle.”
No residential areas have been evacuated as a result of the explosion.
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, staffed by 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.
Schools open Monday
Escambia County Superintendent of Schools Malcolm Thomas announced last night that all Escambia County schools will be open today.
“We are working with the Escambia County Administrator as they manage the situation following the explosion at International Paper’s mill,” said Thomas. “Our employees who need to travel through the affected area along Highway 29 need to be alert to possible detours or heavy traffic.”
More information will be posted as it becomes available. Follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/pulsegulfcoast.