Federal Agency Cites Packer Firm For Violations of Clean Air Act; Investigation Charges Release Of Tons of Toxic Pollutants

R.M. Packer Co., the 23-year-old gas and oil concern headquartered in Vineyard Haven, was cited by the federal Environmental Protection Agency this month for a long list of violations to the Clean Air Act.

The violations go back for years and have resulted in the release of literally tons of harmful pollutants into the air - both on the Vineyard and in New Bedford, the EPA has found. The pollutants are volatile organic compounds - known in governmental parlance as VOCs.

The company is owned by Ralph Packer. Mr. Packer operates a wholesale and retail gasoline, home heating oil and aviation fuel business on the Vineyard. In New Bedford he operates a marine transport facility for petroleum products.

After an investigation that went on for nearly two years, the EPA concluded that the Packer company had dumped some 27 tons of VOCs into the air on the Vineyard and in New Bedford, because the company had not installed the proper equipment to capture gasoline vapors.

The equipment is required under state and federal law.

A formal notice of violation (NOV) was sent to the Packer company on May 14.

The clean air violations occurred at the Packer bulk petroleum terminal in Vineyard Haven, on Packer company gasoline distribution tank trucks and at the Packer marine terminal in New Bedford.

The EPA also found that the Packer company had failed to conduct annual pressure and vacuum testing on gasoline delivery trucks, as required by law, and that the company had failed to maintain complete records of petroleum loading activities at the New Bedford terminal.

The company has also been cited for a number of other violations, including noncompliance with a required testing procedure for emissions.

The violations carry a possible punishment of large fines, and also possible prosecution.

"If Packer has knowingly violated the legal requirements [of state and federal law], Packer and its responsible corporate officers may be subjected to criminal penalties," the notice declares. The notice is signed by Sam Silverman, acting director of the Office of Environmental Stewardship for the EPA.

The company has 30 days to respond to the EPA notice of violation.

The EPA inspections were performed in March of 1999. In addition to an examination of gasoline transfer activities at the Packer terminals in Vineyard Haven and New Bedford, the inspection included an examination of an array of company records for business activities involving both aviation fuel and gasoline for the years 1994 through 1997. Among other things, the examination revealed that the Packer company terminals without question were moving enough fuel to qualify them to comply with state and federal regulations under the Clean Air Act.

The company owns a fleet of gasoline and oil trucks and delivers to at least five gas stations on the Vineyard, according to the violation notice. In March of 1999 the EPA observed three Packer fuel trucks that were not equipped with a vapor balance system designed to capture gasoline vapors when gasoline is transferred between trucks and storage facilities.

The 10-page EPA notice details a series of official communications between the agency and the Packer company that took place between February of 2000 and mid-May of this year:

* In February of 2000 the EPA served the Packer company a Reporting Requirement (RR), ordering the company to provide information by the end of March 2000.

* Two months later the company had not responded , and the EPA sent another letter.

* On June 19 the company responded to the EPA.

* A second reporting requirement was issued to the Packer company in August of 2000.

* The company responded in September of 2000.

Volatile organic compounds interact in the presence of sunlight with oxides of nitrogen, creating ground level ozone pollution, or smog.

"Environmentally, this is a significant situation - the VOC emissions that have occurred are nothing to sneeze at, so to speak," said Gregory Dain, a senior enforcement attorney at the EPA regional office in Boston. "A variety of aspects of Mr. Packer's business have failed to be in compliance with various pollution regulations and we consider it to be significant," he added.

Mr. Packer said this week that he had only just received the notice. He expressed some surprise because he said he believed that Dukes County was exempt from the first phase of the regulations.

The federal Clean Air Act took effect in 1993, and Massachusetts was required to incorporate the regulations into its own EPA implementation plan. In 1996 the state legislature approved a stay on the Clean Air Act regulations for three counties, including Dukes County, but Mr. Dain said the state plan was never properly amended to include the stay. He said the state also commissioned its own agency, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to study the act and decide if the regulations were economically feasible and environmentally sound. In 1997 the DEP study concluded that the Clean Air Act was, in fact, economically and environmentally sound, but Mr. Dain said that the legislature has still not rescinded the stay.

In any event, he said, the federal rules still apply.

"These particular regulations were approved into the state implementation plan and as such are federally enforceable," he said. "And the DEP did an analysis and concluded that the regulations made sense and recommended that the legislature should repeal the stay," he added.

Mr. Packer said his company has already corrected many of the violations. "This has been going on for several years and we have made many corrections - some of the trucks involved and some of the barges involved are no longer in service," he said.

He also said that the Packer tank barge is equipped to capture vapors, but he said no shore side marine facilities are equipped with vapor balance equipment.

Mr. Packer said Clean Air Act regulations do not apply to marinas.

EPA spokesman Mark Merchant disagreed. "Mr. Packer may not understand the environmental regulations, but we at EPA are more than willing to work with him so he can come into compliance," Mr. Merchant said.

"I don't think we can do it overnight - and it's too bad that the federal government and the commonwealth aren't working on the same wavelength. This one is very complex," Mr. Packer said. He also said: "In three years the Packer company has probably spent in excess of $1 million on environmental concerns. We haven't fulfilled every avenue, but we are all very environmentally inclined."

Mr. Dain said the notice of violation is not a formal legal proceeding but is a first step in a process that typically leads to a court complaint.

The EPA began publishing smog alerts for the New England states on May 1 in a new public outreach program. On May 11 a smog alert was issued for the southern New England states, including the Cape and Islands.

"Poor air quality affects everyone, but some people are particularly sensitive to ozone, including children and adults who are active outdoors, and people with respiratory diseases, such as asthma," declared a press release from the EPA.

"There is still work to be done in curbing air pollution," said Ira Leighton, the New England acting regional administrator for the EPA.