Explosions rock Newburyport chemical plant, blow hole through roof

Several explosions rocked a plant in Massachusetts that manufactures chemicals used in medicines Thursday morning, blowing a hole in the roof and leading to evacuation but no injuries, authorities said.

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — Several explosions rocked a plant in Massachusetts that manufactures chemicals used in medicines Thursday morning, blowing a hole in the roof and leading to evacuation but no injuries, authorities said.

Authorities said there is no public health threat resulting from the blasts at the PCI Synthesis building in Newburyport, about 35 miles north of Boston. But the explosions come a year after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found "serious" violations in the company's management of highly hazardous chemicals, according to online agency records.

PCI Synthesis blamed a mechanical issue for Thursday's blasts.

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“At this time, we believe it was a mechanical issue from our steam line, and that there was no fire and that the sprinkler system was not discharged,” the company said in a statement late Thursday morning.

Firefighters responding to an alarm initially went to the building about 4:30 a.m. They encountered “heavy black smoke” and evacuated the building after hearing three explosions, Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Bradbury said.

“We got the fire alarm here at about 4:30 this morning,” Deputy Chief Bradbury told news media on scene Thursday morning. “We immediately encountered three explosions.”

Deputy Chief Bradbury said the fire department evacuated immediately and set up outside to wait on a hazmat team before three more explosions went off. Bradbury said they are still investigating the cause of the explosions, which left a large hole in the roof of the building.

Firefighters told news media on scene the explosions appeared to have ripped a hole in the rood of the PCI Synthesis building early Thursday morning, Feb. 13, 2020.
Firefighters told news media on scene the explosions appeared to have ripped a hole in the rood of the PCI Synthesis building early Thursday morning, Feb. 13, 2020. (Courtesy)

The address is the headquarters for PCI Synthesis, a chemical manufacturing company, with “more than 20 years of experience in contract chemical manufacturing,” according to the company’s website.

There were about 10 workers in the building at the time but no reports of injuries, authorities said. Three more explosions took place about 15 minutes later, including one that blew a 5-foot-by-8-foot (1.5-meter-by-2.5-meter) hole in the roof, Bradbury said.

OSHA and a hazmat team were responding to the scene, and authorities sent a robot into the building to assess the situation, Bradbury said later Thursday.

The company, located in a 65,000-square-foot (6,000-square-meter) building in an industrial park, said it makes ingredients used in medicines.

"We are working diligently with local authorities to assess the extent of the damage," the company said in a statement. "We follow an extensive set of safety protocols and work closely with authorities and conduct training at our facility with emergency teams."

After OSHA inspected the company in January 2019, PCI Synthesis was assessed more than $86,000 in fines and eventually settled for $50,000, according to the online agency records. The violations were corrected and the case is now considered closed.

Three nearby businesses were closed for the day as a precaution, Bradbury said.

The company told Boston 25 News, “We are working diligently with local authorities to assess the extent of the damage… We follow an extensive set of safety protocols and work closely with authorities and conduct training at our facility with emergency teams.”

Officials have not reentered the building since the initial explosion around 4:30 a.m. and are bringing in specialized hazmat equipment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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