Bipartisan concern in Congress escalated for a second day Thursday over the slow pace of power restoration in Puerto Rico and a $300 million contract given to a small Montana energy firm to help repair the island’s electrical grid.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., chair of the subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, wrote a letter directing the head of Puerto Rico’s public utility system to retain all records surrounding the hiring of Whitefish Energy and to turn documents over to Congress.
Meanwhile, 35 Senate Democrats signed a letter to the heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calling on the Trump administration to establish a clear chain of command for who is responsible for coordinating work to restore power to the island.
“We are particularly concerned with the lack of a unified command for electric grid restoration to ensure that resources are properly and quickly utilized, that specific tasks are appropriately prioritized, and that efforts are not duplicative,” the letter read.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that Whitefish, which received the largest contract yet awarded in the troubled relief effort, had only two full-time employees on the day Maria hit the island. The company had never taken on repairs on the scale of the destruction suffered in Puerto Rico.
Whitefish has said that its expertise working in mountainous terrain qualifies it for the job and that its business model calls for rapidly expanding using subcontractors.
Under the contract, Whitefish is charging $330 an hour for a site supervisor and $227.88 an hour 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.
Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer, N.Y., said in a statement Thursday that the Trump administration needs to stop congratulating itself on the recovery effort.
“With most of Puerto Rico still without power, and far too many lacking drinking water and proper sewage treatment, the administration patting itself on the back couldn’t be more premature or inappropriate,” Schumer said. “This administration needs to stop dragging its feet, establish coherent command and control . . . and take the lead when it comes to restoring power.”
Whitefish and the island’s public utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, struck an agreement on Sept. 26, six days after Maria swept through, without a formal bidding process. About 80 percent of customers still have no electricity.
In an interview Thursday, the utility’s chief executive, Ricardo Ramos, said the utility has been pleased with the work so far by Whitefish. Ramos said that given the utility is already bankrupt and under court supervision, it is the “most regulated company in the world.”
Ramos said he is “very comfortable with any investigation” by Congress.
Separately, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said they would travel to the island on Saturday to observe recovery efforts.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Aaron C. Davis