Facing scrutiny, Puerto Rico to cancel plum power restoration contract

30 October, 2017, 01:54 | Author: Garry Little
  • Jose Martinez

At issue is a $300 million contract that was awarded to Whitefish Energy to help restore power to parts of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

FEMA, the nation's disaster response agency, on Friday said it was reviewing the contract that Whitefish Energy signed with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

"There can be no distraction that alters the commitment to restore the electrical system as quickly as possible", Gov. Ricardo Rossello said on Sunday morning, as he moved to ask for mutual aid from the USA mainland to fix his island's decimated power grid. Some critics of the deal with the for-profit company say the island should have opted to use a mutual-aid network of public utilities that usually are called on for massive fix work after natural disasters.

"As a result of the information that has been revealed and the need to protect the public interest, as governor I am asking the power authority to cancel the Whitefish contract immediately", Rossello said.

Whitefish spokesman Chris Chiames told The Associated Press that the company was "very disappointed" in the governor's decision, and said it would only delay efforts to restore power. Whitefish has said the company has expertise in mountainous areas, and arrived in Puerto Rico before other companies.

Ramos said cancellation of the contract will not lead to a penalty, but it's likely the government will pay at least $11 million for the company to go home early, including all costs incurred in the month after the cancellation.

The company is based in the hometown of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who knows the senior manager personally and whose son worked at the company over the holidays, according to reports from The New York Times.

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Whitefish is only two years old and had few employees before Hurricane Maria hit. Federal regulators say they have picked one of their own to do the job.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said that the contract was a distraction after critics in the electric power industry, Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency raised questions about whether the company, Whitefish Energy, was well equipped to respond to the hurricane damage.

FEMA said it has not approved any reimbursement requests from the power company for money to cover repairs to the island's electrical system.

More than a month after Hurricane Maria ravaged the Caribbean, over 70 percent of the US island territory still has no electricity.

Congressional Democrats are calling for an investigation into how Whitefish got the contract.

Though Zinke and Techmanski acknowledge knowing one another, the Interior Department and Techmanski both told the Washington Post the secretary played no role in Whitefish securing the contract.

A federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico's finances announced this week that retired Air Force Col. Noel Zamot will be in charge of power reconstruction efforts. She said she also wants the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA, to investigate, adding to the list of possible investigations.

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