Packer companies get seven-figure sting

Slowness to modernize triggered civil penalties, Ralph Packer says.

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Despite major civil penalties for EPA violations, Ralph Packer aims to bring his harborside property into the 21st century energy fold with a new offshore wind operations and maintenance facility. — Rich Saltzberg

U.S. District Court Judge Denise Casper has ordered Vineyard Haven’s R.M. Packer Co. and Tisbury Towing and Transportation to pay civil penalties totaling $1.2 million. Longtime mariner Ralph Packer, who is president of both companies, said sluggishness at modernizing, particularly with regard to Environmental Protection Agency safeguards, procedures, and documentation, triggered the financial penalties. 

“What we have, could cause an environmental problem,” Packer, who supplies some of the Island’s fuel business and provides barge services, said of the federal government’s stance. “We’ve not caused an environmental problem yet.” 

In her ruling, Casper wrote that R.M. Packer ran afoul of the Clean Water Act, specifically in regards to storm water runoff, among other violations. 

Packer said his company has made a strong effort to comply with stormwater regulations and federal directives. This includes dispatching an employee a half-hour after every rainfall begins.

“We have to take a sample of that water that might flow out into the street and put it in a jar. We have to take four samples — four locations.” Those samples go to Rhode Island Analytical. That firm will create a chemical breakdown of the stormwater contents, he said.

“They don’t test for oil, which you’d think they would,” he noted.

Packer, whose family long ago began its energy odyssey by shipping wood to the Vineyard, then transitioned to coal, and later began to cross Vineyard Sound with oil and gasoline, is now poised to host an operations and maintenance facility for offshore wind projects. Vineyard Wind, America’s first large-scale offshore wind farm, could be the first tenant if Packer and Vineyard Power can get the permits in time.

With that prospect on the horizon, the Packer companies face a costly pivot to contemporary environmental standards. To that end, Packer said he’s brought in about everything from containment areas for the gravel his barges haul in for Island roads to a charcoal-based vapor recovery system for the R.M. Packer fleet of fuel oil delivery trucks. He also said he’s retained the services of soil evaluation experts, OSHA instructors, and half a dozen different environmental consultants.

“[An] EPA concern is that our facility could release benzene — gasoline — and affect the health of everybody within a one-mile radius of our facility,” he said. “No one’s been affected.” 

Packer said with a local fire inspector or wiring inspector, for example, if there’s a problem, it’s common practice to work together to find a solution. He was unable to characterize the EPA in the same way.

“The EPA, they’re a different breed of cats,” he said. “Maybe we approached it not the proper way, but right now we have our instructions and our timetable to do, and we’re committed to doing it. We will follow what is required to meet all their rules, regulations, and comments.”

Tisbury Towing and Transportation regularly barges modular homes to the Vineyard. However, what makes the company’s barge operations unique is fuel transportation.

“We’re the only ones who load gasoline into a barge in Massachusetts,” he said. 

To comply with federal regulations, Packer said $1.25 million was spent to double-hull his company’s fuel barge. The barge itself is only worth about $1.8 million.

The modification allows the barge, which has six compartments and can transport four different products at once, to better survive allisions and collisions and avoid a spill.

“There’s three feet between the outside hull and the inside hull,” he said. 

Packer said his barges have never suffered a collision or oil spill. 

Every time the barge moves, the company must inform the U.S. Coast Guard, he said, and monthly reports on what it has hauled must be given to the Army Corps of Engineers. 

Chappy Ferry boats are regularly spruced up on Packer’s marine railway, and the EPA has weighed in on that. 

“They now use a power rotating brush with a vacuum to clean the bottom of the boats, because you [can’t] let the residue that comes off of the vessel go on the ground and go in the harbor,” he said.

Packer described Chappy Ferry owner Peter Wells as “most conscientious” about adhering to EPA regulations, including EPA-approved, environmentally friendly paint.

“They’re the only ones that really use the [marine] railway now because everything we have is either busy or too big.”

“They’re very concerned about our housekeeping,” Packer said of the EPA. “We’re not good housekeepers.” Packer described the amount of paperwork and reporting now required as copious, but stressed his companies are complying. 

The EPA has accused Packer’s company of being poor data stewards, he said, and he doesn’t agree with them. Nevertheless, Judge Casper has his companies on a strict payment schedule, with numerous stipulations. 

Packer said before long, two high-speed catamarans similar to the MV Whaling City Express, a fast ferry from New Bedford to the Island, will be berthed at his marine terminal, and even as his companies work to shore up their standards for traditional energy logistics, he and his family have turned the page into a new era.

“It’s very exciting,” he said.