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International Paper Highlights Cleanup Efforts

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

One week after the rupture of a digester at International Paper in Cantonment, plant officials continue working to restore the surrounding area and keep residents informed about their efforts.

Over the weekend, a Community Open House was held for residents and businesses in the affected area. Also, representatives of the Unified Command gave the media a first-hand look at the cleanup.

Remediation was in full-swing Saturday morning in the nearby Woodbury Circle neighborhood, where dozens of workers dressed in white and orange protective clothing had begun the process of cleaning up about 20 percent of the 100 or so homes that were impacted. As of Saturday, IP had agreements to conduct remediation on more than 60 properties.

The tour provided an opportunity to share their residential remediation process, which was developed after beta testing on two homes. About a half day is needed to complete the work at each residence.

Houses that have been prepped have sheets of plastic laid out around them, with lift equipment to facilitate rooftop power washing.

Paul Nony is senior toxicologist for the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health or CTEH, which is assisting IP.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Plastic has been laid around this home in the Woodbury Circle neighborhood in preparation for remediation.

“What you see here is sort of the first step in the process for cleaning one of these homes,” said Dr. Paul Nony, senior toxicologist for the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), as he stands in front of a home that’s being prepped for cleanup. It has sheets of plastic laid out around it and lift equipment is positioned to facilitate rooftop power washing.

“We want to work from the top down and collect all the material so we don’t spread it around,” Nony said. “So, the workers here are using spray washers to clean the bulk material off the top of the home and the next step will be to then begin washing any impacted areas to the sides of the home; windows and walls. Also, when that’s complete, we’ll pick up the plastic, take all the materials away and then the yards will be addressed.”

Environmental monitoring and sampling will continue throughout the remediation.  Nony emphasizes that great care is being taken to ensure that all of the runoff from the cleaning process is captured.

“The material that we’re removing is being all collected. So, we’re not letting anything get into the storm drains at this point; those have been blocked off. We’ve had vacuum trucks out to prevent any material from further impacting the environment. And, everything that’s being clean up off the streets and houses and properties here is all being contained and being disposed of properly.”

On this particular morning, much of the activity is centered on Greenberry Drive. With a vacuum truck standing by, pressure washing is underway at one of the houses. Signs have been posted in the yards to indicate the next step in the cleanup at each property.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Cleanup station where vehicles leaving the neighborhood can be washed down.

As a precaution, when individuals leave the neighborhood, there’s a cleaning station. It’s a place for remediation team workers and where vehicles can get a quick power washing, although it’s not mandatory.

Elsewhere, spot cleaning of roadways continues in residential areas, and a complete cleaning of Highway 95A between the plant and the neighborhood is underway.

As noted, the waste water and material from the cleaning process is being collected for proper disposal later. Chris Russell with the Environmental Protection Agency assured that the EPA guidelines would be followed to ensure no waterways are polluted as a result of this incident.

“Everything is going out into permitted facilities,” said Russell noting the potential for disposal at a state-permitted landfill. “Obviously that’s delegated down to the states, so we’re making sure we have sampling on the backside and front side and we don’t see any issues at all.”

Russell reviews a daily summary on the air, water, and soil testing that’s being conducted and says he hasn’t yet seen anything of concern.

That includes the pH level in the black liquor pulp material, which has a normal reading of 12 or 13, but had decreased to a range of nine to 10.

Again environmental monitoring will continue until the cleanup is complete, although none of the Unified Command officials could project how long that might take.

Nevertheless, Russell said he was pleased with how the cleanup is proceeding and the amount of resources International Paper has committed to it.

“Over abundance of caution” is how Russell described the post-incident effort.

“I think we’re at about 190 folks working on it right now,” he said. “In my neck of the woods, we count about $1,000 a head. That’s almost $200,000 a day to get out there and get on this.”

According to Russell, “that’s a very good statement to move forward with.”

Also on Saturday, IP hosted a Community Open House to give local residents and business owners an opportunity to interact with representatives of the mill, along with officials from EPA, Florida DEP, and Escambia County EMA/Public Safety. More than 225 people attended the event.

Meantime, the plant remains closed, with no announced timetable for reopening. However, employees are continuing to be paid.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.