Third fire/explosion in three years blows roof off Massachusetts plant; one worker killed, US
A worker was killed Thursday, 4 May 2023, after a powerful explosion tore through a pharmaceutical chemical plant in Massachusetts in the US ripping the roof off the building and prompting a US senator to demand accountability from the plant's owners. Fire fighters were called to the Sequens/PCI Synthesis plant, a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, on Opportunity Way just before 01h00am. When they arrived, they found an industrial-sized vat that had been inside the building was now about nine metres away in a parking lot. Video showed most of the roof torn off the building, Acting Newburyport Fire Chief Stephen Bradbury said. He described the blast as a seven-alarm hazardous materials incident.
The explosion, which Chief Bradbury called "violent," caused major structural damage to the building so fire fighters and technical rescue crews weren't immediately able to go inside. Fire crews met with a demolition company, the city's structural engineer and a building inspector.
The Coast Guard sent in their helicopter to help with the search.
Chief Bradbury said the area where the explosion happened was an addition put on several years ago and the roof and walls are compromised. "It was extremely difficult amongst a lot of debris and concerns about stuff falling down and other hazards that we had to be aware of," he said.
The Essex County District Attorney's office confirmed the worker who died in the explosion as Jack O'Keefe, aged 62, of Methuen.
Four other workers were sent to the hospital as a precaution but were uninjured and released.
It wasn’t immediately known what caused the explosion or what, if any, chemicals were involved. Smoke from the fire blew into a largely unpopulated area, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which added that initial air monitoring found no significant problems. The air monitors did pick up minor levels of hydrogen cyanide but they were below the OSHA hazardous level.
The explosion prompted US Senator Edward Markey to demand greater accountability from the troubled facility. Senator Markey said the company needs to provide answers, given the facility's history of accidents and violations. “Today’s chemical explosion in Newburyport is devastating. 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.”
Smoke from the fire blew over the industrial park and into a largely unpopulated area, according to officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection. They added that there was some runoff from fire fighting foam but officials worked to block additional runoff.
Nancy Gero, 58, who works next door to the plant, 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.”
“All our attention is focused on the situation of our employees,” PCI Synthesis said in a statement.
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 50 kilometres north of Boston in an industrial park with other businesses. Residential neighbourhoods, schools and churches are near the commercial area.
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.
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.
The factory has also been cited by OSHA for workplace safety violations and in 2019 paid a more than $50 000 penalty to settle Environmental Protection Agency charges that it violated of hazardous waste laws.
Also in 2019, the EPA signed an agreement with the company, then known as Polycarbon Industries, aimed at making the facility safer. The settlement included a $50 210 fine and $152 000 dedicated to “protect human health and the environment.”
The company agreed to install a monitoring system for hazardous waste and other gas emissions inside its facility.
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 to prevent releasing hazardous chemicals from four waste tanks and failing to meet hazardous waste air emission standards.
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.”
Sources: Associated Press, The Independent, CBS Boston
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