Workers sampling a batch of chemicals triggered the explosions that ripped through a Newburyport pharmaceutical chemical company Thursday, punching a hole in the roof but not injuring any workers or first responders, officials have concluded.
State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey and Newburyport Deputy Fire Chief Steven Bradbury said the pre-dawn incident at PSI-Synthesis on Opportunity Way was caused while workers at the plant — which operates 24 hours a day — were conducting tests on a batch of chemicals under production.
“Investigators have determined that several explosions occurred during a sampling procedure of product from a large vat,” the officials said in a joint statement.
Officials also said that no Newburyport firefighters were in the 75,000-square-foot building when as many as six separate detonations took place as had been originally stated.
PSI-Synthesis, which opened for business on Friday, said the explosions and damage were restricted to a single 800-square-foot room in the building, leaving most of the facility untouched. No equipment was damaged, the company said,.
Authorities on Thursday said dry chemicals were in use when the explosion occurred, and that there was no public health threat.
The incident is also under investigation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The company said it appreciated first responders. "We want to thank the authorities for their quick work in ensuring the facility is safe and ready to re-open so that we can get back to work,'' the company said.
The company was inspected by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration in January 2019, and workplace safety inspectors found nine violations, including seven which were deemed "serious,” records show. (Two additional citations were deleted by OSHA, records show.)
All nine citations were violations of the OSHA safety standard for "process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals,'' according to OSHA records. The safety standards are designed for “preventing or minimizing the consequences of catastrophic releases of toxic, reactive, flammable, or explosive chemicals. These releases may result in toxic, fire or explosion hazards.”
PCI Synthesis was fined $86,266, an amount later reduced to $50,000 after negotiations with OSHA. OSHA has since closed the case. According to OSHA, the company is non-union.
The company noted that in January 2019, “we were fined by OSHA for issues mainly related to the robustness of our documentation system; at no time was employee safety at issue. We worked closely with OSHA, implemented every additional safety related documentation and information the agency required, and OSHA accepted our abatement plan, and closed this issue. We have not had a problem since.”