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Puerto Rico to Cancel Controversial Contract With Firm Restoring Electricity

  • VOA News

FILE - Whitefish Energy Holdings workers restore power lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, Oct. 15, 2017.

Puerto Rico's electric power company says it is canceling the $300 million contract with a Montana energy company hired to restore power to the storm-ravaged island.

Earlier on Sunday Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello had called for the contract to be pulled.

PREPA chief Ricardo Ramos calls the controversy surrounding the contract with Whitefish Energy "an enormous distraction ... negatively impacting the work we're already doing."

Ramos said Whitefish will complete work on fixing two transmission lines, get paid off, then go home.

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last month. Between 70 and 80 percent of the island still does not have power. Ramos said finding someone to take over from Whitefish will delay complete restoration for about two months.

FILE - Downed power lines and debris are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, Sept. 26, 2017.
FILE - Downed power lines and debris are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, Sept. 26, 2017.

One option is for state utility workers from New York and Florida to go to Puerto Rico as part of a mutual agreement for power companies to come to the aid of others in an emergency.

Whitefish is a tiny Montana energy company, less than two years old and with only two full-time employees. The rest were hired specifically for the Puerto Rico job.

In a statement posted to Facebook, Whitefish said it was "disappointed in the decision" by Rossello to cancel the company's contract. The company said it had completed significant work on two main transmission lines by bringing 350 workers to Puerto Rico since it began work on October 2. Whitefish said it would have had more than 500 lineman on the island by this week.

Questions about contract

Questions have emerged in Washington and on Puerto Rico how and why a small, obscure company scored such a huge contract without the process that allows other companies to bid for the job at a lower price.

Montana is the home state of Ryan Zinke, President Donald Trump's interior secretary. Before appointment to Trump's Cabinet, Zinke was a Montana congressman. Also, Zinke's son worked for Whitefish over the summer.

The Department of Homeland Security said it has started an investigation of the Whitefish contract and will look for any "inappropriate relationships."

A helicopter from Whitefish Energy Holdings flies to power line towers for repairs after the passing of Hurricane Maria in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, Oct. 15, 2017.
A helicopter from Whitefish Energy Holdings flies to power line towers for repairs after the passing of Hurricane Maria in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, Oct. 15, 2017.

Ramos said the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved the Whitefish deal. FEMA denies this and Zinke also denies anything untoward.

"I had absolutely nothing to do with Whitefish Energy receiving a contract in Puerto Rico," he has stated. "Any attempts by the dishonest media or political operatives to tie me to awarding or influencing any contract involving Whitefish are completely baseless."

Ramos has said Whitefish has done an excellent job so far and said he welcomes a federal probe into its contract, saying he is sure nothing illegal took place.

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