Puerto Rico’s power authority, PREPA, has awarded a lucrative contract to rebuild the island’s devastated power grid to a small, 2-year-old Montana firm that had only two full-time employees at the time Hurricane Maria hit, according to a report by the Washington Post.
The company, Whitefish, also has ties to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Whitefish is based in Whitefish, Mont., Zinke’s hometown. As the Post reports, Zinke confirmed that he knows Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski and that Zinke’s son worked a summer job at one of Techmanski’s construction sites. Both Zinke and Techmanski deny that the interior secretary had anything to do with Whitefish’s landing of the $300 million contract.
It’s the biggest contract awarded thus far in Puerto Rico’s relief effort.
The decision to award such an important and—particularly with Puerto Rico’s debt woes—expensive contract to a company that has relatively little experience with large-scale projects has raised eyebrows. One former Energy Department official told the Post that she was “scratching [her] head wondering how it all adds up.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that 80 percent of the power grid is damaged, and 80 percent of Puerto Rican electricity customers have yet to see power return. On Friday a photo tweeted out by former Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, showing a surgery performed by cellphone light, went viral.
“This is what POTUS calls a 10!” García Padilla wrote, alluding to Donald Trump’s earlier comments about the success of relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
As the Post reports, the small, for-profit Whitefish relies on hiring workers on short-terms contracts. The hourly wages listed in the contract—as well as accommodation and food costs—are substantial.
From the Washington Post:
[Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo] Rosselló said Wednesday that the island would spend $490 million on the initial phase of repairing the commonwealth’s grid, adding that “a large portion of that would probably go to Whitefish” and another contractor. The utility gave Whitefish a $3.7 million initial payment for “mobilization of personnel and equipment,” the contract says. Whitefish could be paid as much as $300 million for up to two years of work.
Under the contract, the hourly rate was set at $330 for a site supervisor, and at $227.88 for a “journeyman lineman.” The cost for subcontractors, which make up the bulk of Whitefish’s workforce, is $462 per hour for a supervisor and $319.04 for a lineman. Whitefish also charges nightly accommodation fees of $332 per worker and almost $80 per day for food.
According to The Economist, PREPA is responsible for $9 billion of Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt. Part of the problem in rebuilding the power grid post-Maria is that PREPA had been skimping on maintenance for years.
Now the pricey contract that PREPA has awarded to Whitefish is drawing scrutiny in Congress as a $4.9 billion Puerto Rico aid package awaits approval from lawmakers and from the Trump administration. It’s possible that the island would need more funding in as little as three months, according to the Post.
Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Roselló promised that 95 percent of the island’s power would be restored by Christmas—even though Whitefish has yet to do a full assessment of the island. Techmanski told the paper that it could take up to five months or longer to restore power.
Read more at the Washington Post.