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International Paper Explosion: Answers And More Questions

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

Federal, state, and local officials working on the aftermath of Sunday’s explosion at International Paper in Cantonment gathered there Tuesday, to discuss the accident and subsequent cleanup.

Plant Manager Brett DeJong dispelled rumors the past couple of days that the accident could lead to the closing of the facility, after 75 years in Cantonment.

“[International Paper] is a large company, committed to re-establishing operations at the facility,” said DeJong. “Exactly how long that will take is yet to be determined, but we have staff coming from all over the company that can help us.”

The immediate task for IP, says DeJong, is providing restitution to the employees and residents affected by the explosion. He adds that, even though the plant is shut down, employees will have other jobs in the cleanup.

Sunday night’s blast occurred in a device called a "digester" -- DeJong says the rupture caused the release of a mixture of wood, wood chips and a liquid known as “black liquor.”

“It’s actually produced when the cooking chemicals are consumed during the cooking process,” DeJong said. “The purpose of the cooking chemicals is to dissolve the glue that’s present in wood chips that we process. And dissolving that glue allows us to separate the fibers and actually make the paper products that we make.”

Dr. John Lanza, Director of the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County, says the black liquor which landed on the roads and yards does not pose a significant health risk, but not to touch it. The main health issue, he says, is 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.”

Another area of immediate concern is property damage to residences surrounding the plant. Chris Russell with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says they’ve been making the rounds and contacting people directly.

“Let me say; it will be awhile before we get it done,” said Russell. “We’re looking at quite a few houses that we want to go in and look at. [There are] over 100 contractors out their working. We’re going to assess it, move forward piece by piece and make sure it’s clean.”

Air quality monitoring is ongoing in the area, with current readings that indicate no danger to the public, Elsewhere, state and federal environmental workers are developing a long-term plan to measure the accident’s impact on people, wildlife, soil and surface water.

Those with additional questions can call a 24-hour hotline -- 850-968-4208 -- until further notice.