Escanaba Billerud Mill resumes operations after idle for blastomycosis investigation

Billerud Paper Mill
Billerud Paper Mill(WLUC)
Published: Apr. 13, 2023 at 4:58 PM EDT|Updated: May. 8, 2023 at 11:20 AM EDT
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ESCANABA, Mich. (WLUC) - UPDATE: The Escanaba Billerud Mill resumed operations Monday after a four-week idle while health experts investigated the cause of a blastomycosis outbreak among mill workers.

The mill initiated the process to begin idling on April 13. At the time, the idle was planned to last up to three weeks while health experts investigated the site for a source of blastomyces spores and completed a voluntary health evaluation of employees, consisting of a medical questionnaire and an antigen urine test. Billerud used that time to facilitate additional cleanup.

Following a deep cleaning recommended by public health authorities and experts, Billerud said the Escanaba Mill has initiated resumption of operations as of May 8. The company said to date, no Blastomyces spores have been found within the mill.

“The health and safety of our employees and contractors remains our top priority and we are focused on ensuring a safe return to the mill,” Billerud said in a statement on its website. “We continue to work closely with and follow the recommendations of local, state, and federal health experts as they continue to investigate this dynamic situation.”

The company continued to pay employees during the idle.

Meanwhile, the investigation is continuing. According to Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties (PHDM), NIOSH is awaiting results of the urine antigen samples they collected as part of the voluntary medical evaluation for employees and contractors, as well as the results of the environmental samples collected from the mill. PHDM said these results will dictate the next steps in the investigation.

Billerud first learned of the blastomycosis fungal infections on March 3 from PHDM after the health department was notified by the local hospital of several atypical pneumonia infections in individuals who work at the Escanaba Mill.

To date, there have been 115 cases of confirmed or probable blastomycosis associated with the Escanaba Billerud Mill, according to PHDM. Fourteen out of the 115 total cases have been hospitalized. All 115 of the cases are either employees, contractors or visitors of the Billerud Paper Mill in Escanaba.

Last published: Apr 13, 2023 6:00:10 PM

Billerud has decided to temporarily idle its Escanaba mill for up to three weeks as the investigation into blastomycosis infections among workers there continues.

The company made the announcement Thursday afternoon, calling it aprecautionary measure to protect the health and safety of its employees and contractors due to a blastomycosis fungal infection outbreak.”

“Our top priority now and always is protecting the health and safety of our employees and contractors who work at our Escanaba Mill,” said Christoph Michalski, Billerud president and CEO. “We care deeply about their well-being and are doing everything we can to protect them and identify and address the root cause of the blastomycosis fungal infections.”

Michalski said during the idle, the company will facilitate additional cleaning of the facility based on recommendations from NIOSH and other organizations, which requires larger portions of the mill to be vacant while the work is performed. The company said it will begin the process Friday and expects the mill to begin idling early next week.

“The financial impact is assessed to be limited since the production at the Escanaba Mill was being adjusted to meet current market demand,” Michalski said.

The company said employees of the mill will continue to be paid through the idling period.

Billerud first learned of the blastomycosis fungal infections on March 3 from the Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties (PHDM) after PHDC was notified by the local hospital of several atypical pneumonia infections in individuals who work at the Escanaba Mill.

To date, there have been 21 confirmed cases and 76 probable cases of blastomycosis among Escanaba Mill workers. Billerud’s leadership, occupational health and safety department, union leadership and mill employees have been proactively working with the PHDM, an industrial hygienist, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate the outbreak.

“Although the source of the infection has not been established, and we have not received any information from the mill’s investigation, public health officials, or any of the organizations assisting in this investigation, that indicates visiting or working at the mill is unsafe, we take this matter very seriously,” says Kevin Kuznicki, Billerud President North America. “We are following recommendations from experts at these organizations, including deep cleaning in high traffic areas throughout the mill.”

Kuznicki said this deep cleaning consists of inspecting ventilation systems and replacing filters, and testing various raw materials coming into the mill; conducting an onsite Health Hazard Evaluation to study the health and safety of Escanaba employees with the assistance of NIOSH, CDC, MDHHS and PHDM; and communicating regularly with employees, contractors and visitors. The company has also been encouraging contractors, visitors, and employees to wear NIOSH and OSHA-recommended N95 masks and recommending they contact their local healthcare providers if they are experiencing any symptoms.

According to the PHDM, the U.P. is a known risk area for blastomycosis infection. Identifying the source can be difficult because the blastomyces fungus is endemic to the area and there has never been an industrial outbreak of this nature documented anywhere in the U.S.

Blastomycosis is a disease associated with a fungus that grows in moist soil and decomposing matter such as wood and leaves that can become airborne if disturbed. These infections are rare and most people who breathe in blastomyces will not get sick. According to the CDC, blastomycosis is not contagious and doesn’t spread from person to person or between animals and people. Blastomycosis can be treated with antifungal medications prescribed by a medical provider. More information can be found at the CDC’s website.