CANTONMENT, Florida (From NorthEscambia.com) -- "My heart just sank."
That's how Brett DeJong, mill manager at International Paper in Cantonment, described the phone call he received at home about 7:40 p.m. on Sunday, January 22.
There had been an explosion, a big explosion, at the mill.
"My first thought was the safety and well being of everyone," he said. "It was very hard to believe."
He immediately began the 45-minute drive from his home to Cantonment. It wasn't until just before he arrived that he received word that all mill employees were accounted for, and there were no fatalities. And even better, there were not even any employee injuries.
DeJong wasn't really prepared for what he saw -- or for that matter, what he didn't see as he arrived at the mill. Cantonment's giant was dark. Very dark. Paper mills just don't go dark and silent, but DeJong's mill was essentially lifeless before him, except for the emergency lights from fire trucks and ambulances.
The work began immediately to determine what had gone wrong to cause the explosion, determine the impacts of a black liquor and wood pulp mixture blown across the area, and to determine the impact on the future of the mill.
For now, there's no official word on the cause of the explosion and the health and environmental impacts of the black liquor product have been reported as minimal.
The next major concern for Dejong and Escambia County is the future of the mill.
In late 2014, IP announced plans to reinvest more than $90 million over the next five years in their mill in Cantonment in order to increase energy efficiencies, support and enhance the work environment and strengthen its competitive position.
The mill employs more than 400 people and has been a foundation in the Escambia County area since 1941. It produces lightweight containerboard and specialty fluff pulp. From Pensacola, the mill's containerboard products are sent to container facilities to create corrugated brown boxes. The fluff pulp is distributed to customers for diapers and other hygiene products.
The products from both lines are "sold out", according to Dejong, so production is critical.
International Paper is vital to the local economy,with the company's local annual average wages representing more than 200 percent of the Escambia County average wage of $37,360. According to an analysis by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the manufacturing industry sector directly contributed more than 14,500 jobs in the Northwest Florida region, with an additional gain of more than 9,700 jobs for local businesses.
IP employees were back at work less than a week after the explosion...most assigned to different tasks involving the remediation and cleanup following the explosion that caused significant structural damage to the largest pulp digester as well as the power house at the mill.
Production remains shut down.
Dejong said he's hopeful that one of the mill's lines can be restarted on some limited basis without and before the restoration of the digester. But that, he said, is an uncertainty.
"We are committed to reestablishing operations at this mill," he said.
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