25 Investigates: Before explosion, over $168K in federal fines for Newburyport company

25 Investigates has found that Newburyport pharmaceutical chemical company Seqens has racked up at least $168,000 in federal fines for its lengthy record of violating safety laws dating back to 2015 – including for failing to meet federal standards for emergency response and safe handling of hazardous materials.

Seqens avoided more EPA fines in 2019 by agreeing to spend $152,000 to plant 63 trees in environmentally sensitive areas in Newburyport and buy an indoor air monitoring system to monitor emission levels.

That means Seqens has faced a bill of over $320,000 to help settle its federal fines from 2015 alone.

The explosion Thursday, that killed one man, is just the latest incident that’s drawn concern from local officials about the facility’s glaring safety and environmental record.

In 2020, six explosions at the company forced workers to evacuate and blew a hole in the roof. A spokesperson at the time said the incident happened in “one small, isolated room” and blamed it on a “mechanical issue from our steam line.”

And then in 2021, Seqens saw a chemical fire that drew concern from the city’s former mayor and led to the temporary shutdown of the company.

Current Newburyport Mayor Sean Reardon tells 25 Investigates that he wants answers.

“I’m really going to be interested in this investigation that’s already started, what we get from that, what evidence, why did this happen again,” Reardon said in an interview. “We also have a call set up this afternoon with our state and federal partners because we have questions that we want answered. And so, I think because they have a history that’s going to come into play here when we look into some of the causes of the most recent explosion.”

Reardon said the company’s had a “great relationship” with the city over the years, including with the fire department.

But Reardon said he wants to know if it’s safe for the company to be doing its work in the city’s industrial park.

“I know they do incredibly important work, but it’s also incredibly dangerous work,” Reardon said. “And so what I’m hoping is that you know, through this investigation and we have to make that decision you know, is this work that should be happening, you know, in the industrial park here in Newburyport. And I think that’s the question that we have to answer.”

SEQENS, formerly known as PCI Synthesis, makes chemicals used for medicines.

According to the EPA, the company has worked with flammable chemicals including methanol, chlorobenzene, chloroform, sulfuric acid, 1,4-dioxane, acetone, acetonitrile, and toluene.

Fines lodged against the company dates back to 2006, when the EPA said the company could face up to $472,975 in fines.

The EPA, in part, said the company failed to conduct hazardous waste training for personnel. The company was then known as Polycarbon Industries.

“The most significant violations involve PCI’s failure to conduct personnel training, failure to comply with tank and air emission standards, and failure to separate incompatible wastes,” the EPA said in 2006. “Not conducting hazardous waste training for personnel made it more likely that wastes would be mismanaged. Failing to ensure compliance with tank and air emission standards resulted in potentially hazardous air emissions.”

The EPA in 2007 said the company was now complying with federal standards and agreed to pay a cash penalty of $8,750.

The company also agreed to purchase a thermal imager – used to local victims and hot spots in burning buildings – and reverse 911 equipment, which can deliver messages simultaneously to notify people about crises like chemical spills.

But years later, the company continued to get in trouble with the EPA as well as OSHA.

Since 2015, it’s racked up tens of thousands of dollars in penalties from OSHA: nearly $15,000 in 2015, $50,000 in 2019, $28,000 in 2020 and another $8,000 in 2021.

OSHA cited the company in 2015 for two violations of federal standards concerning “occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in laboratories.

In 2019, it got cited for what OSHA called four “serious” violations of standards for the “safe management of highly hazardous chemicals.”

That same year, the company agreed to pay a $50,211 penalty to the EPA for flouting hazardous waste safety laws.

The EPA had found the company failed to comply with hazardous waste tank regulations, conduct hazardous waste determinations and place accumulation dates on hazardous waste containers.

OSHA began investigating the company again in the wake of the February 2020 explosions,

The company got cited for four more serious violations for again failing to meet standards for the safe management of highly hazardous chemicals.

And yet again in 2021, the company got hit with one serious violation concerning the storage of dangerous liquids

That year, OSHA also cited the company for violating standards for hazardous waste operations and emergency response standards.

That led to a $7,510 penalty.

25 Investigates has asked OSHA for more details about the company’s safety record.

A spokesperson for Seqens did not immediately return an emailed request for comment Thursday.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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