the power's out in puerto rico
On Sept. 26, six days after Hurricane Maria brutalized Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) signed a contract worth up to $300 million with Whitefish Energy to work on the island's ravaged electrical infrastructure, the company said last week. When Maria hit, two-year-old Whitefish had just two employees, The Washington Post reports. It has since hired 280 linemen and other workers, mostly subcontractors, for its Puerto Rico job.
Before the huge Puerto Rico deal, Whitefish had never handled a federal contract bigger than $1.3 million, to repair and upgrade parts of a 4.8-mile transmission line in Arizona within 11 months. Puerto Rico has 2,400 miles of transmission lines, 30,000 miles of distribution lines, and 300 substations, and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has promised that 95 percent of the territory's power will be restored by Christmas, from 23 percent currently — a goal Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski says may not be possible. The decision by bankrupt Puerto Rico to hire a small for-profit company rather than drawing on existing "mutual aid" agreements with power utilities in other states, as would be more common after a natural disaster, has drawn scrutiny in Congress, The Washington Post notes.
Whitefish Energy is based in Whitefish, Montana — population 6,357 — the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke and Techmanski say they know each other — but only because "everybody knows everybody" in Whitefish, Zinke's office told the Post — and both men say Zinke was not involved in securing the Puerto Rico contract. Once the contract was secured, Techmanski told NBC Montana in late September, he contacted Zinke to ask for help getting workers and supplies to Puerto Rico. You can read more about the contract, why it's unusual, and Whitefish's claim to expertise at The Washington Post.