Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting an investigation into the deal made with Whitefish Energy to restore power to Puerto Rico.
“We are writing to request that you investigate the use of public money to reimburse work completed under a contract between Whitefish Energy Holdings LLC (Whitefish) and Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA, or Autoridad de Energia Electrica) to restore PREPA’s electric power system in the wake of Hurricane Maria,” the senators said in the letter.
“Restoring and rebuilding the grid is central to the public health, welfare, safety, and economic growth of Puerto Rico. Like all U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans deserve no less.”
Whitefish Energy, which is based in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown in Montana, is only two years old and had just two employees when the territory’s utility, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, signed the $300 million contract.
— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorp) October 26, 2017
In their letter, the senators cited recent reports they said “raised serious allegations about the nature and circumstances surrounding” the contract.
“Among the principal concerns raised in these reports are the potentially inflated costs of time and material in the contract relative to comparable at-cost utility mutual aid agreements,” the letter said.
The senators also cited the “contemporaneous communications” between Whitefish and administration officials including Zinke.
“We are intent, along with many of our colleagues in Congress, on providing the hardworking federal workers, private sector workers, utility crews, and Puerto Ricans the necessary federal resources to restore electric power immediately on the island and to rebuild the grid in a more resilient way that facilitates long-term growth,” the statement said.
“It is essential that as we deliver these resources we have confidence the funds are being spent wisely and cost-effectively.”
The Hill added:
The request comes after the company feuded earlier this week with the mayor of San Juan after she called for the contract to fix the island’s hurricane-ravaged electrical grid to be “voided.”
The governor of Puerto Rico this week requested an audit into how the company won a multimillion-dollar contract to restore power to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s financial oversight board also reportedly plans to appoint an emergency manager to oversee its electric utility.
Another issue that has garnered attention is the requested pay scale for workers. At a rate of $330/hour for a site supervisor, along with $332/night for accommodations and $80/day for food, it’s a personnel cost that is not quite the norm for similar projects. According to Fortune, a utility repair worker would normally earn $50/hour, though that wage does go up significantly for post-natural disaster repairs. Journeymen linemen repairing the damage from Hurricane Irma in Florida made $75/hour for regular work, and up to $100/hour for overtime. As one worker put it, “I’ll probably make 30 grand this month.”
The Whitefish Energy contract pays a journeyman lineman at $227.88/hour, more than double the overtime disaster rate following Hurricane Irma, and the repair workers in Florida were not allotted the extra $332 as a nightly hotel stipend, or the additional $80/day for food. Electrical repair work is, of course, dangerous; that’s part of why compensation goes up considerably for natural disaster relief.