Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Small electrical contractor from rural Montana tapped to rebuild Puerto Rico's power grid

Pedestrians duck under a downed power line in Puerto Rico. (Photo: Angel Valentin, Vox)
A relatively untested Montana energy contractor has signed a $300 million deal to rebuild some of the power grid in Puerto Rico, which is still largely without power a month after Hurricane Maria. Though Whitefish Energy is only two years old, company spokesperson Chris Chiames says the company's experience with rebuilding power lines in the mountains of western Montana translates well to Puerto Rico, Tristan Scott reports for the Flathead Beacon in Kalispell. Chiames says Whitefish has had crews on the ground since Sept. 26, with 265 workers and contractors in country right now. That number that could grow to 1,000 by the end of the job, which he estimates will take months. The company's specific assignment is to repair and rebuild 100 miles of transmission lines on the western side of the island. The island has about 2,400 miles of transmission lines, roughly 80 percent of which was damaged by the storm.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority took the unusual step of hiring Whitefish and other private companies last month to rebuild the island. Often after disasters, U.S. states activate mutual aid arrangements with other utilities, but it's unclear why Puerto Rico didn't. Congress is scrutinizing the decision to hire Whitefish and others because of concerns about bankrupt Puerto Rico's ability to pay.

Another reason Congress is paying attention: Whitefish, Mont., is the home town of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and he and Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski acknowledge knowing each other--but only because it's a small town where "everybody knows everybody," Zinke's office told The Washington Post. Both Zinke and Techmanski deny that Zinke had any role in scoring the job for Whitefish. The House Committee on Natural Resources is examining Whitefish's hiring because "The size and unknown details of this contract raises numerous questions," committee spokesperson Parish Braden told the Post. "This is one of many things the committee is taking a close look at as it continues to work with the resident commissioner, governor’s office, and oversight board to ensure Puerto Rico’s recovery is robust, effective and sustained."

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