Billerud addresses blastomycosis concerns, explains what’s next

Published: Apr. 20, 2023 at 6:12 PM EDT
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ESCANABA, Mich. (WLUC) - Brian Peterson, Billerud’s Vice President of Operations at the Escanaba paper mill, spoke to TV6′s Escanaba Bureau Reporter about Billerud’s response to the blastomycosis outbreak.

According to Public Health Delta Menominee Counties, there are 21 confirmed and 76 probable cases in employees, contractors and visitors of the mill. Updated numbers should be available on Friday.

“We’ve been working with authorities since the very beginning to get the cleaning done,” said Peterson. “We got to the point last week after looking at what NIOSH had recommended for the next level of cleaning, and we decided the best way to do that was to get as many people out of the mill as we can because it’s just too disruptive with everyone in the mill. We started that process Friday; we have the mill idled. We started our deep cleaning yesterday afternoon and we’re just a day into it.”

This means a minimum amount of people are coming in to keep the mill in working condition.

“We have operating permits we have to operate, it’s still winter here, we still have freezing conditions so we’re still running a boiler,” said Peterson. “We made a list of the employees we need, bare minimum staffing, to run the mill. From there, HR worked with their unions to get that staff. It’s roughly 20 to 25 people at a time.”

The mill has more than 800 employees. Those working during the idle are in N95 masks when near the cleaning areas.

“As cases have come in, and we’ve worked with county health and NIOSH to say, ‘here’s where the employees work, what is in common between them?’ We’ve taken that along with the complexity of the cleaning of a particular area and that’s how we’ve come up with a list of what needs to be cleaned,” said Peterson.

Now, Billerud wants the community to know they’re working to find a solution.

“It’s a very rare situation we’re in,” said Peterson. “We’ve had so much help from CDC to NIOSH and lots of experts to help us understand where it is, what is going on. It’s a very complex situation but we are going as fast as we can and getting as many people as we can, hence taking the decision to idle the mill. Let’s just get this done.”

The source of the blastomycosis is still under investigation. As for those who are currently infected, Peterson says they are working on workman’s comp.

Peterson says the billion-dollar investment into the Escanaba mill is still on track.

Click here to read more about blastomycosis at the mill.