NEWBURYPORT – In the wake of chemical fire at PCI Synthesis/SEQENS, the city announced Monday it halted all operations at the 9 Opportunity Way facility until investigators determine what caused the blaze.
Newburyport Fire Chief Christopher LeClaire said his office suspended all permits that allow the pharmaceutical company to operate until it fully investigates the cause of the fire and evaluates its safety systems.
Crews responded to a fire alarm activation at PCI Synthesis/Seqens at 5:36 p.m. Friday. When Engine 5 arrived firefighters found heavy smoke pouring from several roof vents and called for a working fire response.
Firefighters were able to knock the fire down after about 20 minutes, aided by the working sprinkler system in the building. Because chemicals are stored and used in the building, a Tier 1 Hazmat incident was declared, consistent with the state’s Hazardous Materials Emergency Response protocols. The hazmat declaration sent a regional team of specialists to the scene to aid Newburyport firefighters.
Crews determined there was no danger to the public.
The incident was declared under control at 6:48 p.m.
Friday’s chemical fire was the second major incident at PCI Synthesis/SEQENS since 2020. In February of that year, explosions ripped a hole through the company’s roof and led to nearby businesses being evacuated. No one was hurt in the blast or Friday’s fire.
LeClaire said the company’s permits were not suspended after the February 2020 incident but said the decision to temporary close the facility was based on “a culmination of incidents.”
The fire chief went on to say that company representatives were cooperating with the city.
Mayor Donna Holaday said she was “very concerned about PCI Synthesis/SEQENS” and fully supported LeClaire’s decision to shut down the company until a full independent evaluation of the incident and chemical processes used at the facility was completed.
“I would also like a review of personnel hires, trainings, supervision etc. to ensure qualified staff are managing these volatile processes,” Holaday said in a statement.
Holaday and firefighters toured the facility after the 2020 incident to view cleanup efforts and gain a better understanding of the chemical process that resulted in that explosion, she added.
“Despite upgrades and changes implemented, we are once again faced with another incident,” Holaday said.
LeClaire said his department monitors all industrial facilities within the city to ensure companies adhere to permit requirements.
“We are constantly watching and if we have to take action, we will,” LeClaire said.
A PCI Synthesis/SEQENS spokesperson was contacted Monday morning for a statement but did not immediately reply.
The chemical fire is but the latest in a string of workplace incidents at PCI Synthesis/SEQENS.
In 2015, the company was fined $4,950 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a violation involving 23 people. It was classified as “serious” by the federal safety agency. The fine was reduced to $2,970 after the company filed an appeal, according to OSHA.
A decade earlier, in 2006, the federal Environmental Protection Agency accused PCI Synthesis, known then as Polycarbon Industries Inc., of violating numerous requirements of federal and state hazardous waste laws.
The violations included failure to conduct personnel training, failure to separate incompatible wastes, and failure to comply with tank and air emission standards. The last violation could have resulted in potentially hazardous air emissions, according to an EPA press release.
More recently, in 2019, PCI paid the EPA more than $200,000 after a 2017 inspection of the plant showed that it was violating federal and state hazardous waste laws. PCI agreed to pay a $50,210 fine and spend $152,000 in projects that will protect human health and the environment.