Five Workers Injured, One Missing After Chemical Plant Explosion

One worker is missing and the building is severely damaged after an early morning explosion at a pharmaceutical chemical plant in a business park in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Five workers were in the building at the time of the explosion. Four were taken to a local hospital, where they were treated and released. Twelve hours later, officials had still not announced that the missing person had been located.

Newburyport Fire Chief Stephen Bradbury said the building at 9 Opportunity Way sustained major structural damage, keeping firefighters and technical experts from entering to search for the remaining worker. He said the building is a “high hazard facility” that is known to the city’s fire officials.

Bradbury said Newburyport and neighboring communities’ firefighters were at the scene of the hazardous materials incident about 12:45 a.m. on Thursday, after 911 operators received a report of an explosion. Upon arrival, fire crews saw that an industrial-sized vat from inside the building had moved about 30 feet because of the explosion, and it was now sitting in an adjacent parking lot.

The fire department said there is currently no danger to area residents, but police asked workers in the industrial park to avoid Opportunity Way while operations continue. The plant is in an industrial park.

Officials from the State Fire Marshall and the state Department of Environmental Protection are on the scene. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also has people at the site.

The cause of the explosion is under investigation. This is the third hazardous materials incident at the plant since 2020. The factory operates 24 hours a day.

The plant houses the contract development and manufacturing operations of Seqens North America, also known as PCI Synthesis. The company confirmed an employee is missing and expressed gratitude for the quick response of firefighters.

Newburyport is a coastal city about 35 miles northeast of Boston.

According to its website, Seqens provides active pharmaceutical ingredient and drug substance development services for pharmaceutical and medical device firms in human and animal health. It assists the firms with their pharmaceutical and biotechnology applications for “complex, niche and small molecule programs.”

This is not the first dangerous incident at the facility.

On June 11, 2021, local fire crews responded to a chemical fire inside the plant at about 5:30 p.m. Firefighters were able to knock the fire down after about 20 minutes, aided by the working sprinkler system in the building. Due to the chemicals stored and used in the building, a Tier 1 Hazmat incident was declared. There were no injuries.

The same plant was the site of a fire and another early morning hazmat incident on February 13, 2020. Fire officials responding at 4:35 a.m. that day encountered heavy smoke in a room known for chemical production work and soon thereafter heard at least six explosions from that area of the building. One of the explosions caused a 5-by-8 foot hole in the building’s roof. Hazmat teams initially entered the plant with a robot and conducted tests. No injuries were reported.

The company also has a history with OSHA. In January 2021, PCI Synthesis paid $28,000 in OSHA penalties for safety and health violations related to the February 13, 2020 incident. In 2019, the company paid $50,000 to settle OSHA claims and in 2015, as Polycarbon Industries Inc., it paid $23,888 in OSHA penalties.

In January of this year, Seqens opened a state-of-the-art, 15,000 square-foot research and development center in Devens, Massachusetts. The new $5 million lab replaced an older, smaller lab.

Globally, Seqens operates 24 manufacturing sites and 10 research centers with 3,400 employees.

Photo; Crews on-scene at hazardous materials explosion in Newburyport, Mass.on May 4, 2023. Photo courtesy Newburyport Fire.