Auburn company seeking ‘boom’ time


AUBURN — A local manufacturing company is hoping to capitalize on the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by churning out a much-sought-after oil containment tool known as a boom.

John Lapoint, president of Packgen in Auburn, which makes composite packaging used to contain environmental and hazardous waste, said he expects to at least double his 30-person work force in the next couple of weeks as the company ramps up production of the booms.

“When we heard about the shortage of the booms, I had an engineer come to me who said, ‘John, I think we could do this,’” Lapoint said. “He took it upon himself; he came the next day and plopped a portion of a boom on my desk.”

Booms are designed to float on the surface to prevent the oil from spreading. They also use a weighted skirt that acts as a barrier below the surface.

The explosion of a BP oil rig in the Gulf on April 20 resulted in an ongoing environmental disaster that has caused demand for booms to go up across the country.

Despite the fact that the company has yet to sign a contract for the new product, John Lapoint is confident it can become a permanent part of his Maine business.

“Right now, we’re still pitching (to buyers),” he said. “I’ve funded this up to this point and the bank account is empty. Now I’ve got to get at the state or federal level and they’ve got to come through, or the people who want booms from us, they’ve got to come through, and that’s what we are working on right now.”

Interest is high in the new product, but Lapoint said he was skeptical of shipping it off without a contract that pays Packgen at least a little cash up front.

“I have to hold out, because you read about scamming, you hear about it, but until you experience it firsthand, then it gives you a whole different level of appreciation,” he said, adding that at least a few of the companies expressing interest in the booms have proven to be illegitimate.

Concern about scams flows both ways, however, so Jana Lapoint, a board member, investor and John’s mother, said she called Gov. John Baldacci to ask for help. On Monday, Baldacci shot a video for the company website to vouch for Packgen to potential buyers.

“Now we can tell somebody, ‘Go on our website and you can see the governor. You can see our product line. We are a legitimate company; we didn’t just come about because of an oil crisis,’” Jana Lapoint said.

BP, the company that owns the oil rig that exploded, has shown interest and even sent up a company auditor to check out Packgen. The BP official also met with representatives for U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. The Maine Republicans are working to promote Packgen with authorities in charge of cleanup.

John Lapoint said that even though his company hasn’t before  produced booms commercially, he was confident their experience with similar products could successfully transition into the market.

“We believe our boom is second to no one,” he said. “It has to do with all the things we’ve been doing in the past. So it was all the elements coming together, the engineering coming together and just our know-how over a 30-year window of time. This would not be doable if we did not have the experience that we have.”

John Lapoint said there’s no reason his company can’t eventually compete with China, which is a leading manufacturer of oil booms.

“I have really capable, competent people,” he said. “It takes creativity and a desire to bring manufacturing, not just back to Maine, but back to the U.S. It’s a lost art.”

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Gov. John Baldacci recorded a video Monday on behalf of Packgen, an Auburn-based manufacturing firm working to produce oil containment products, to reassure potential buyers that the company is legitimate.