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Body found after explosion rips roof off Newburyport pharmaceutical plant

Debris scattered around the Seqens/PCI Synthesis pharmaceutical plant in Newburyport after a chemical explosion on Thursday, May 4. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Debris scattered around the Seqens/PCI Synthesis pharmaceutical plant in Newburyport after a chemical explosion on Thursday, May 4. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A powerful explosion Thursday at a troubled pharmaceutical chemical plant in Massachusetts left one dead in a building the local fire chief said was too dangerous to search for hours.

Crews were finally able to enter damaged portion of the building on Thursday afternoon. They were removing barrels of chemicals and searching for a worker who had been missing since the explosion was reported in the early morning hours.

Acting Newburyport Fire Chief Stephen Bradbury III indicated that the body discovered was likely the missing worker.

"It's in a hazardous situation, located on the ground level, where we thought he would be located," Bradbury said Thursday evening, adding that crews got to that part of the facility "as quick as we could."

The explosion happened around 1 a.m. at the Seqens/PCI Synthesis plant in Newburyport, officials said. Video footage showed most of the roof torn off a building, and the blast blew a vat from inside the building 30 feet into a parking lot, Bradbury said in a news release.

Officials don't know yet what caused the explosion, Bradbury said Thursday afternoon. And it isn't clear what role, if any, the vat played in the explosion.

The fire department said air monitors set up around the building's perimeter have not detected any airborne hazards, and crews were assessing whether there was any impact on local streams.

There is no danger to nearby homes, Bradbury said, but workers at the industrial park where the plant is located were asked to avoid the area.

Newburyport firefighters examine the debris around the Seqens/PCI Synthesis plant after a chemical explosion overnight. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Newburyport firefighters examine the debris around the Seqens/PCI Synthesis plant after an explosion overnight. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Nancy Gero, 58, who works next door, didn't get that message. As she pulled up to her workplace, she saw emergency vehicles packing the parking lot with foam, and debris everywhere.

“I could smell chemicals in the air,” she said. “I could taste it on my lips.”

Meaghan Williams, who lives about a mile and a half from the site, said her husband was awakened by the sound of the explosion, which was captured by their home security camera.

"It was really scary, really disconcerting," she said of the images in the video. "I mean it looks like daylight, it's so bright and we live pretty much out in the woods. And then you hear this massive boom two seconds later."

Four workers from the plant were sent to the hospital as a precaution, were not injured and were released. One worker was unaccounted for.

“All our attention is focused on the situation of our employees,” a company statement said.

Dangerous conditions in the building prevented firefighters from searching for the missing worker for most of the day, Bradbury said. Fire crews met with a demolition company and the city's structural engineer and building inspector "to make sure it’s safe for us to continue our search,” he said.

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Chemists from the company and a technical rescue crew responded. A spokesperson for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that agency was also responding.

The agency opened an inspection Thursday to determine if Seqens has complied with OSHA workplace safety and health standards. The agency has up to six months to finish the inspection.

OSHA officials examine the debris scattered around the Seqens/PCI Synthesis plant after a chemical explosion. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
OSHA officials examine the debris scattered around the Seqens/PCI Synthesis plant after an explosion. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In 2020, authorities said a chemical reaction caused a series of explosions at the plant. That happened a year after OSHA found “serious” violations in the company’s management of highly hazardous chemicals, according to online agency records. There were no serious injuries.

A chemical fire in the building in June 2021 sent smoke pouring out of roof vents and prompted a response by a hazardous materials team, according to a fire department statement at the time. Sprinklers controlled the fire within about 20 minutes, but the city suspended the factory's permits during the investigation.

The factory has also been cited by OSHA for violations of workplace safety rules and by the Environmental Protection Agency for alleged violations of hazardous waste laws.

"Why are we allowing companies to continue to operate knowing that there's a laundry list of these kinds of concerns already brought to their attention?" said Al Vega, chief of strategy and engagement at Massachusetts Coalition For Occupational Safety And Health, or MassCOSH.

"Because these hazards are so well known and the potential controls for them are so well known, when an incident like this occurs, the criminal charges ought to be investigated,” said Richard Rabin, senior trainer and technical consultant to MassCOSH. “Especially a company that repeatedly violates the standards, repeatedly puts workers' health and lives at risk.

The company reached a settlement agreement with the EPA in 2019 after violating federal and state hazardous waste laws in 2017, most notably failing to comply with regulations designed to prevent leaks of hazardous waste from tanks. The Newburyport plant generates "hazardous wastes such as toluene, methylene chloride, acetone and methanol," according to the EPA. As part of the settlement, PCI Synthesis agreed to buy and operate a system to monitor emissions of hazardous wastes and other gas emissions inside the facility.

The company was also cited by EPA in 2006 for similar compliance failures.

Newburyport firefighters examine the debris on Thursday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Newburyport firefighters examine the debris on Thursday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Gero has been working at her company for only a little more than a year and until Thursday wasn’t aware of past problems at the plant.

“A lot of people work there," she said. “If that had happened during the day it would have been a disaster.”

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey said he would demand accountability.

“Today’s chemical explosion in Newburyport is devastating,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a tweet. “This disaster is the facility’s third accident since 2020. We can’t keep excusing companies’ flagrant disregard for worker safety. I’ll be calling on PCI Synthesis and federal regulators to explain what happened.”

This article was originally published on May 04, 2023.

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