A Newburyport pharmaceutical chemical factory where a violent explosion happened Thursday morning, leaving one worker dead, has faced multiple citations and thousands of dollars in fines from federal regulators over repeated safety incidents in recent years.
In 2019, PCI Synthesis, now known as Seqens, reached an agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to improve chemical safety at the facility and limit the environmental impact. But just four months later, an explosion blew a hole through the factory’s roof, and a chemical fire in June 2021 forced a temporary shutdown.
Seqens bills itself as “the largest small molecule drug substance manufacturer in New England,” according to its website. The company was acquired by French-based Novacap in 2018 and became known as Seqens.
The worker was identified as Jack O’Keefe, 62, of Methuen, Essex District Attorney Paul F. Tucker’s office said late Thursday night.
In a statement Thursday night confirming the worker’s death, Seqens said it is committed to safe practices.
“The safety of our employees has always been, and continues to be, our top priority. We strive to follow best practices and regulatory guidelines, and have implemented safety protocols and procedures to prevent incidents like this from occurring” the statement said.
In addition to its factory in Newburyport, the company has a lab in Devens. The locations are among 24 manufacturing plants and three research and development centers with more than 3,200 employees across North America, Europe, and Asia, according to its website.
The company, then known as PolyCarbon Industries, previously operated a biochemical plant in Leominster until it was demolished after an explosion in 2005, which prompted its move to Newburyport.
It handles a high volume of chemicals, with more than 546,000 pounds transferred off-site in 2020, the 13th most in the state that year, according to a report by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
In a statement Thursday morning, the company confirmed an employee was missing, hours after the blast occurred at 12:45 a.m., and that four other workers were not injured. The company said it reported an “accident” at 1 a.m. Thursday.
“The authorities arrived quickly on site and we are grateful for their support and quick work,” the statement said.
Seqens could not be reached for comment on the company’s history of safety incidents.
On June 11, 2021, a fire broke out in the plant’s production workshop area, leading to a Tier 1 hazmat incident. Employees and contractors were on site when the fire started, but no injuries were reported.
After an inspection, OSHA cited the company for two violations, including one “serious” violation involving “flammable liquids” according to OSHA records. The second violation was for “hazardous waste operations and emergency response.” The company was fined $18,023, which was lowered to $8,000.
On Feb. 13, 2020, an explosion tore through the plant and punched a hole in the roof. The eruption happened as workers were conducting tests on a batch of chemicals under production, officials said at the time. No injuries were reported. The damage was contained to a single 800-square-foot-room, leaving most of the facility untouched.
OSHA inspectors cited the company for five violations, four of which were deemed “serious” and involved the “process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals,” according to agency records. The agency fined the company $53,436, which after negotiations was lowered to $28,000.
Federal inspectors had also visited the facility in January 2019 and cited the company for six violations, four of which were deemed “serious,” records show. Two other citations were later deleted by OSHA, records showed.
All six citations were violations of the agency’s safety standards for “process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals,” records show. The 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/Seqens was fined $86,266, an amount later reduced to $50,000. The company later said the issues identified by OSHA were “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,” the company said in 2020. “We have not had a problem since.”
Separately, the Environmental Protection Agency announced in October 2019 it had reached an agreement with the company to pay a $50,210 fine and a $152,000 “in projects that will protect human health and the environment.” The deal stemmed from a June 2017 inspection that was part of a national compliance initiation around hazardous waste air emissions.
The EPA said the company “generates hazardous wastes such as toluene, methylene chloride, acetone and methanol.”
“The most significant violations were that the company failed 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,” the EPA said at the time.
In 2006, the company, then doing business as PCI Synthesis following its acquisition of Borregaard Synthesis in 2005, settled with the EPA after the agency alleged that it violated a series of different hazardous the waste rules at the Newburyport plant, including failing to conduct weekly inspections of hazardous waste storage areas and daily inspections of hazardous waste tanks, not having an adequate training program or an adequate contingency plan, and failing to separate incompatible wastes, according to a Globe report.
As part of the settlement, PCI Synthesis agreed to pay $26,500 to the city of Newburyport and a fine of $8,750, the Globe reported.
The company moved its manufacturing operation from Leominster to Newburyport in 2005 after acquiring Borregaard Synthesis. Before the move, there were two explosions at the Leominster plant, in 1997 and 2005.
The 1997 explosion damaged the roof and injured at least two people, including one technician whose clothes were burned off, according to news reports. The 2005 explosion caused extensive damage and the building was demolished.
Samantha Gross, Jonathan Saltzman, and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and correspondent Adam Sennott contributed to this report.