Newburyport — No one was injured in a series of explosions Thursday morning at a pharmaceutical chemical company in the city’s industrial park. But the blasts at PCI Synthesis’ manufacturing plant forced the evacuation of three businesses near the Opportunity Way complex.
Newburyport Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Bradbury said when firefighters responded to a fire alarm call about 4:30 a.m., they saw smoke inside the plant. While firefighters were investigating, three explosions took place in another room.
“(Firefighters) evacuated immediately,” Bradbury said.
Once they were out of the building, three more explosions occurred, ripping a 5-by-8-foot hole in the roof.
A state hazardous materials team arrived and firefighters evacuated three businesses adjacent to PCI. Officials said the cause of the explosions was still under investigation Thursday afternoon. Authorities sent a robot into the area where the explosions occurred to determine if it was safe for firefighters and others to re-enter, Bradbury said.
After conferring with police and fire officials about the explosions, district officials opened nearby schools. There had been a weather-related, two-hour delay. Most of the city’s schools are close to the blast site.
By noon, firefighters and the hazardous materials team had gone into the plant to investigate.
Soon after the explosions, PCI Synthesis’ parent company, Seqens, tweeted, “We’re working diligently with local authorities after reports of an explosion at our Newburyport facility. All employees on site were safely evacuated; no injuries reported. We will provide more information when we learn more. Thanks to police & fire for their quick response.”
The plant operates 24 hours a day. Fewer than 10 employees were working at the time of the initial explosions and they left the building safely, according to a press release.
Because the plant stores and uses chemicals, firefighters declared a “Tier 2 Hazardous Materials Incident,” which activates a regional team of specially trained professionals with specialized equipment.
After the robot conducted tests, officials determined there was no danger to the community.
By 1:30 p.m., emergency responders had left the building and turned it over to the owners.
Firefighters from Salisbury, Haverhill, Amesbury and Hampton, New Hampshire, provided mutual aid along with the state Department of Fire Services. Officers from the Newburyport Police Department responded to the incident and directed traffic. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration also responded.
Firefighters from Seabrook and West Newbury covered Newburyport’s stations.
In its manufacturing of chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry, PCI Synthesis generates hazardous wastes such as toluene, methylene chloride, acetone and methanol, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2019, the EPA ordered PCI Synthesis to pay more than $200,000 after a 2017 inspection of the plant showed that it was violating federal and state hazardous waste laws. The company agreed to pay a $50,210 fine and spend $152,000 on projects to protect human health and the environment.
The most significant violations included failing to comply with regulations designed to prevent releases of hazardous waste from four tanks. PCI Synthesis also failed to comply with hazardous waste air emission standards for those tanks, and equipment came into contact with waste, according to the EPA.
To settle the charges, PCI Synthesis agreed to buy and operate a system to monitor emissions of hazardous waste and other gas emissions in the manufacturing and laboratory areas of its facility. The company must also plant 63 trees in Newburyport to reduce air pollution in the area, the EPA said in a press release.
In 2015, PCI Synthesis was fined $4,950 by OSHA for a violation the agency classified as “serious” involving 23 people. The fine was reduced to $2,970 after the company filed an appeal, according to OSHA.
In 2010, OSHA fined PCI Synthesis, then known as Polycarbon Industries Inc., $15,000 for six safety violations, five of them deemed “serious.” The company appealed the fines and saw them reduced to $8,750, according to OSHA.
In 2006, the EPA accused Polycarbon Industries of violating numerous requirements of federal and state hazardous waste laws. The violations included failure to conduct personnel training, failure to separate incompatible wastes, and failure to comply with tank and air emission standards. The last violation could have resulted in potentially hazardous air emissions, according to an EPA press release.
PCI Synthesis has more than 120 employees and a manufacturing facility of more than 75,000 square feet, according to its website. The facility is equipped with 22 reactors, providing more than 20,000 gallons of total capacity.
PCI Synthesis also operates research and development laboratories and what is known as Kilo laboratories in Devens. The labs are equipped with glass reactors, fume hoods, stainless steel filters, rotary evaporators and other mechanisms used to develop drug ingredients, according to its website.
It has earned dozens of leadership awards and was named Best New Chemical Entities Manufacturer for 2016 by Healthcare & Pharmaceutical Magazine.
In an email statement Thursday afternoon, PCI Synthesis said the explosions “affected only one production suite, and 85% of the building is unaffected. Currently local authorities continue to assess the facility, and we are working closely with them.
“We have not been allowed inside the building yet. The immediate causes have not yet been determined,” the email said.
The statement said PCI is regulated and inspected by OSHA and the EPA, “as well as other agencies to ensure the utmost safety and environmental standards in all of our facilities. Our Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) staff works closely with all of those agencies on a continuous basis. We have an excellent environmental and safety record which we work hard to maintain and are very proud of.”
The fine imposed by the EPA in 2019 was for “issues mainly related to the robustness of our documentation system; at no time was employee safety at issue.”
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