My Heart Sank: Mill Manager Speaks Out About Explosion, Future Of IP

January 30, 2017

“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. photo, click to enlarge.


15 Responses to “My Heart Sank: Mill Manager Speaks Out About Explosion, Future Of IP”

  1. Brenda Taylor on February 15th, 2017 1:30 pm

    My family is still sufffering from this explosion. A sick child is most concerning. Seeing doctor about that. There is still black liquor in the swimming pool in the backyard and when IP was called, they said everything is 100% cleaned up. Define cleaned up???? IP said to call the insurance company and the insurance company said to call IP. I called the health department and they said to call IP!!!

  2. dave caverhill on February 4th, 2017 3:01 am

    I’ve been in the pulp & paper industry for 42 years, first in New Brunswick and now
    Alberta. We have been following the explosion with hopes of recovery for the plant
    and to learn of the cause, so it can be avoided in other mills. we pray for a successful recovery !

  3. Taylor on February 3rd, 2017 2:58 am

    Great coverage and thanks for using my pictures!

  4. Ryan on February 1st, 2017 4:02 am

    I am extremely happy that there were not any LIFE changing events as a result of the explosion. I wish you all the best and hope to see the mill back up and running. May God bless you all with strength and perseverance.

  5. Danny Jennings on January 31st, 2017 9:20 pm

    Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with you and all the employees of the Pensacola Mill. May you rebound quick.

  6. Wilma Gibson on January 31st, 2017 5:00 pm

    so sorry this happened but glad no one was hurt.. I hope it is up and running soon. So many in my family worked at the mill under different names. it has been a God send to the people of Escambia county. it provided a good income to so many and helped with many community projects

  7. Sandra on January 31st, 2017 10:15 am

    So grateful that no one was injured! Mr. Dejong’s transparency is apparent. I’m hopeful that the plant will be up and running before we know it and there will be little to now environmental impact to the community. My prayers are with each and every person this has affected.

  8. Granny B on January 30th, 2017 10:18 pm

    Thank you North Escambia for printing the truth about this accident in a factual manner. I am so tired of the local media only reporting the downside and the negative. My husband is employed at the mill, and thinks the manager is a fine, decent man who truly cares about his employees and their safety. This mill is important for the economy of this area. We are thankful the effort is being made to have it back up and running soon.

  9. mick on January 30th, 2017 7:35 pm

    Hope they are up and running soon and all remediation efforts are successful. My Paw -n – Law put a lot of blood, sweat and years into that mill. Prayers for continued success to all the employees. Rest in Peace Ernie…

  10. patti on January 30th, 2017 4:49 pm

    I THANK GOD that there wasn’t anyone injured. My prayers are that the plant will be operational again before too many days or weeks. I know the folks employed there will be and ARE thankful for their job. Until then, my PRAYER is that everything will be reestablished and working VERY SOON.

  11. anne 1of2 on January 30th, 2017 4:12 pm

    Mr DeJong needs all the prayers we can send his way. Plant Manager sounds like such a great job right until something like this happens. I’d still be under my bed hiding, that’s how we know he is strong and will build the plant back better than new. This is still unbelievable!

  12. old man on January 30th, 2017 3:49 pm

    rode pass the mill yesterday it was spooky no trucks no steam no activity never worked at the mill but i know how the workers feel hopefuly the mill will up and running soon may the force be with you

  13. Jean on January 30th, 2017 9:41 am

    I hope the mill can get up and running soon. Most people in the area do not know all the good that the mill and its employees do for the people of Cantonment. I spent many years as a volunteer in the Cantonment Fire Department when it was all volunteer. We fueled all our equipment at the mill free of charge while all the other volunteer departments had to purchase their fuel through county funds. They also helped replace our supplies when needed. I also know that the employees at the mill volunteered their time to help the elderly keep their homes in good repair in Cantonment by volunteering to paint their homes, repair their roofs, etc. They are a good neighbor and I hope they are around for a long time.

  14. Janet on January 30th, 2017 7:45 am

    I hope the mill can get back to business soon. They employ hundreds of workers that, I’m sure, are certainly stressed out with worry about their jobs. I wish the best of luck to all involved in getting the mill back running!

  15. David Huie Green on January 30th, 2017 6:38 am

    Good article