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Hit by rare fungus, U.P. paper mill to close for deep cleaning

Billerud’s Escanaba Mill on a sunny day
Some workers at Billerud’s Escanaba Mill have had severe symptoms from the rare fungal infection; others were able to continue working, according to the union president. (Courtesy photo)
  • A fungus known to thrive in the Upper Peninsula, doesn’t usually make people sick 
  • As of Friday, 97 workers have been sickened; some hospitalized
  • As investigators continue trying to find the source of the spores, the plant will deep clean, replace filters and test materials

A rare fungal outbreak at an Escanaba paper mill has now temporarily shut down the mill’s operations, idling hundreds of workers for up to three weeks.

By Friday afternoon, at least 97 workers at Billerud Escanaba Mill have been infected or are believed to have been sickened by blastomycosis, an infection caused by breathing the spores of the fungus blastomyces, according to Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties.


The company announced the temporary closure Friday, saying it will idle “for up to three weeks as a precautionary measure.”


A spokesperson for the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health confirmed Friday for Bridge that the decision to close was the company’s own.

NIOSH will return to Billerud Escanaba Mill Thursday, at which time employees will be offered urine tests to test for blastomyces and health questionnaires that will gather information including where employees were working, tasks they performed, and their personal risk factors, according to a NIOSH spokesperson in an email to Bridge.

Those results, then, will guide soil sampling, according to a NIOSH letter dated Friday April 7 to Billerud.

Company spokesperson Shawn Hall, told Bridge the process to shut down has begun and the plant will be idle by mid next week. She noted that workers will be paid and receive their regular benefits through the time the company is closed.

While the company waits for answers from health and workplace inspectors, “we take this matter very seriously,” Kevin Kuznicki, president of Swedish owner Billerud’s North America operations, said in the announcement. 

The company will deep clean high traffic areas throughout the mill, inspect ventilation systems, replace filters, test raw materials and continue its work with local and federal health inspectors, he said.

“The temporary idling of the mill to perform additional cleaning is another proactive step we are taking,” he said, in the announcement.

The infection spread at a pivotal moment for the site, which has anchored the economy of the area for more than a century. Billerud acquired the more than century-old mill last year and is considering a $1.2 billion retooling that would shift production from paper to more lucrative packaging products.

But on Feb. 28 local health officials learned about what appeared to be “atypical pneumonia infections” among Billerud Mill employees. Billerud, in its announcement Friday, said it didn’t learn of the fungal infections until March 3 after hospital officials alerted the health department.

The fungus blastomyces is relatively common in moist soil and in decomposing wood and foliage in the Midwest, and it usually doesn’t affect those who are exposed. And because the fungus doesn’t spread from person to person, outbreaks are rare.

“Most years we don't even have a human case in our jurisdiction,” said Nick Derusha, health officer for nearby Alger, Schoolcraft, Luce and Mackinac counties.

In recent years, in fact, the health department has heard of more cases among dogs than humans.

But for some people, especially those with compromised immune systems, it can cause serious illness. Their body temperature triggers the inhaled spores to transform into a budding yeast that can colonize the lungs and spread through the bloodstream to skin, bones and joints, organs, and the central nervous system, according to the CDC. Symptoms are coughing — sometimes with blood as well fever, chest pain, difficulty breathing, night sweats, fatigue, weight loss, aches and pains. 


Those in forestry work, hunting, and camping, and those with compromised immune systems, may be at higher risk for getting blastomycosis, according to the CDC.

But officials are still perplexed at the large scale of the infection in this town on the U.P.’s southern edge.

Several Billerud workers have been hospitalized, but others have been able to continue work without interruption, Gerald Kell, the plant’s union president, told Bridge earlier this week.  The union represents most of the plant’s workers.

Federal health and occupational safety officials who visited the site March 27 and March 28 have advised Billerud to continue providing N95 masks for workers, curb unnecessary work outside the facility that could disturb the soil and scatter fungal spores, and keep doors closed as much as possible.

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