Fri | Nov 24, 2017

Puerto Rico gov seeks to cancel US$300M Whitefish contract

Published:Sunday | October 29, 2017 | 11:24 AM
FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2017, file photo, Whitefish Energy Holdings workers restore power lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s governor on Sunday demanded that the board of the island’s power company cancel the US$300 million contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings amid increased scrutiny of the Montana company’s role in Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.

The announcement by Gov. Ricardo Rossello comes as federal legislators seek to investigate the contract awarded to the small company from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown.

“There cannot be any kind of distraction that alters the commitment to restore electrical power as soon as possible in Puerto Rico,” Rossello said, adding that at least US$8 million has been paid to Whitefish so far.

Neither Whitefish nor power company officials immediately returned messages for comment.

Rossello said he has requested that power crews from New York and Florida come help restore power in Puerto Rico and he criticised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for not meeting its goals. The agency could not be immediately reached for comment.

Roughly 70 per cent of the island remains without power more than a month after Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm with winds of up to 154 mph. Power company director Ricardo Ramos has said that Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority reached a deal with Whitefish just days before the hurricane struck. He also said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had approved of the deal, something the agency has denied.

FEMA said this week that it has not approved any reimbursement requests from the power company for money to cover repairs to the island’s electrical system. The contract said the utility would not pay costs unallowable under FEMA grants, but it also said, “The federal government is not a party to this contract.”

FEMA has raised concerns about how Whitefish got the deal and whether the contracted prices were reasonable. The 2-year-old company had just two full-time employees when the storm hit, but it has since hired more than 300 workers.

A Whitefish contract obtained by The Associated Press found that the deal included US$20,277 an hour for a heavy lift Chinook helicopter, US$650 an hour for a large crane truck, US$322 an hour for a foreman of a power line crew, US$319 an hour for a journeyman lineman and US$286 an hour for a mechanic. Each worker also gets a daily allowance of US$80 for food, US$332 for a hotel room and US$1,000 for each flight to or from the mainland.