Worker found dead after an explosion at a pharmaceuticals plant in Massachusetts, US

Article by Kerry Hebden

A WORKER has been killed after a powerful explosion ripped through a pharmaceutical plant in Newburyport, Massachusetts, US, decimating a building, and sending a vat flying nine metres into a parking lot. This is the facility’s third incident since 2020. 

The explosion happened around 01:00 local time at the Seqens plant (formerly known as PCI Synthesis), officials said. Acting fire chief Stephen Bradbury who attended the scene, and described the blast as a “seven-alarm hazardous materials” incident said: “We arrived encountering heavy fire, and reports of five people in the building. Four of them got out safely, but one was unaccounted for.” 

Searches for the unnamed worker were initially hampered by concerns over the plant’s structural integrity following the blast. However, firefighters were able to resume their search after meeting with a demolition company, the city’s structural engineer and a building inspector to assess the damaged structure. The missing worker was later found dead. 

The four other workers who escaped unharmed were sent to the hospital as a precaution, but were subsequently released. 

Authorities said there was no threat to the local population or to homes near the Newburyport building, which lies around 50 km north of Boston in an industrial park, but other employees who work nearby were told to stay away by fire officials. 

Many details surrounding the explosion, such as the cause, the role of the vat, and what — if any — chemicals were involved, are still unknown at present. Those familiar with the facility have vented anger at Seqens by pointing out that this is not the first incident to occur at the facility, which the company describes as an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturing plant on its website. 

US Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts said in a Tweet: “This morning's explosion at the Seqens pharmaceutical manufacturing plant is horrifying—and it's just the latest avoidable disaster at this facility, following years of serious violations, fines, and explosions. 3 disasters in 3 years is 3 too many. We need answers.”  

In 2019, Seqens, then PCI, signed an agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make the company safer for employees and the environment, and paid over US$200,000 in a settlement that included fines for violating federal and state hazardous waste laws after an inspection was carried out at the facility in 2017. 

The EPA said at the time that the plant generated hazardous waste including toluene, methylene chloride, acetone and methanol. The company was cited for failing to comply with regulations designed to prevent releases of hazardous waste for four hazardous waste tanks and failed to comply with hazardous waste air emission standards for those tanks, as well as associated equipment that came into contact with the waste. 

Just four months after the EPA press release, The Association Press reported that a series of explosions had occurred at the plant, blowing a hole in the roof and leading to an evacuation. The company blamed the incident on a mechanical issue with its steam line. 

Then, in June 2021, a chemical fire in the building sent smoke pouring out of roof vents and prompted a hazardous materials team to respond. Sprinklers controlled the fire within about 20 minutes, but the city suspended the factory’s permits during the investigation. There were no serious injuries cited in those events. 

Article by Kerry Hebden

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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