At the first press conference of the Unified Command, International Paper Plant Manager Brett DeJong said the company is committed to keeping the facility that employs about 500 people open.
“Exactly how long that will take is yet to be determined,” said DeJong, “but we have staff coming from all over the company that can help us.”
Dejong’s commitment echoed what Congressman Matt Gaetz said on “Pensacola Speaks” yesterday. A few weeks ago, the congressman had toured the plant and talked with IP officials. He said that the Cantonment facility has been exporting its products to Europe, where virgin soft pine is “craved.”
“IP has been in a growth mode as of late,” said Rep. Gaetz. “I have every expectation that it is going to continue as soon as they get up and going.”
The Unified Command consists of Escambia County Emergency Management, Escambia County Public Safety, Florida Department of Health, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA. It was formed to deal with the aftermath of Jan. 22 explosion that caused significant structural damage to the largest pulp digester and power house at Cantonment pulp and paper mill. No one was injured, but a mixture of wood fiber, water and “black liquor” covered nearby roads, homes and vehicles.
Delong explained that the black liquor is produced during the “cooking process” that uses chemicals to dissolve the glue in wood chips that are processed.
The Material Safety Data sheet on the black liquor warns that the substance may be corrosive to metals and can cause severe skin burns and eye damage.
The Director of the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County, Dr. John Lanza, said at the press conference that the black liquor does not pose a “significant health risk.” However, it can cause skin irritation from contact.
“If you do experience skin irritation or come in contact with the material, you need to wash off that area with soap and water,” Lanza said. “If you have continued skin irritation or other problems, then you need to contact your physician or go to the nearest emergency department.”
EPA is visiting the neighborhoods surrounding the plant to assess any property damage. A long-term plan is being developed to measure the accident’s impact on people, wildlife, soil and surface water.
Local environmentalists are concerned about the impact of the black liquor on creeks, rivers and bays.
Dr. Gloria Horning, whose doctoral thesis was on pulp mills, told Inweekly, “It’s a bigger disaster than IP wants you to know. This stuff will stay in the environment long after you and I are gone.”
Horning took pictures of Cotton Global Disaster Solutions at the paper mill hiring day laborers. Many who don’t speak English and have been outfitted with hazardous material items and gloves, according to Horning. IP also has brought in a truckload of pressure washers that Horning said washed the chemicals into the stormwater drains and into two pipes that empty into wetlands along U.S. Highway 29.
The IP 24-hour hotline for any questions or concerns is 850-968-4208.