Chemical plant explosion north of Boston
NEWBURYPORT, Mass. –
A powerful explosion Thursday at a troubled pharmaceutical chemical plant in Massachusetts left one worker missing in a building the local fire chief said was too dangerous to search.
Authorities said there was no threat to the local population or to homes near the Newburyport building, but fire officials told employees who work in the industrial park where the facility lies to stay away. One woman who didn’t get the message said she could taste chemicals on her lips.
The explosion happened around 1 a.m. at the Sequens/PCI Synthesis plant, officials said. Video footage showed most of the roof torn off a building, and the blast blew a vat from the building 30 feet into a parking lot, acting Fire Chief Stephen Bradbury III said in a news release.
It wasn’t immediately known what caused the explosion, or what — if any — chemicals were involved. It was also unclear what role, if any, the vat played in the explosion.
Nancy Gero, 58, who works next door, said she saw emergency vehicles packing the parking lot with foam and debris everywhere when she pulled in Thursday.
“I could smell chemicals in the air,” she said. “I could taste it on my lips.”
Four workers were sent to the hospital as a precaution, but were uninjured and released. One worker was unaccounted for.
“All our attention is focused on the situation of our employees,” PCI Synthesis said in a statement.
Dangerous conditions in the building prevented firefighters from searching for the missing worker, Bradbury said at a news conference. Fire crews were meeting with a demolition company, the city’s structural engineer and a building inspector “to make sure it’s safe for us to continue our search,” he said.
Chemists from the company and a technical rescue crew have responded. A spokesperson for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that agency was also involved.
The plant lies a little more than 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Boston in an industrial park with other businesses. Residential neighborhoods, schools and churches are near the commercial area.
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 how the company managed highly hazardous chemicals, according to online agency records. There were no serious injuries cited in those events.
A chemical fire in the building in June 2021 sent smoke pouring out of roof vents and prompted a hazardous materials team to respond, 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 workplace safety violations and in 2019 paid a more than US$50,000 penalty to settle Environmental Protection Agency charges that it violated of hazardous waste laws.
Gero has worked near the plant for a little more than a year, but was unaware of its past problems until Thursday.
“A lot of people work there,” she said. “If that had happened during the day, it would have been a disaster.”