Puerto Rico Struggles to Untangle Itself from Whitefish

SAN JUAN—Puerto Rico’s top elected official insists his government is still on pace to restore 95% of the island’s power grid by mid-December even though he’s ousting the main energy company hired to do the job.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló says his recent decision to terminate a controversial $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings shouldn’t present any setbacks to rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electricity grid, which is now 30% restored, hitting its goal for Oct. 31. The next goal is 50% by end of November, and then 95% by Dec. 15.

But fixing the worst electrical failure in U.S. history can only happen if everyone pulls their own weight. And right now, the governor thinks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the weakest member of the team.

“They haven’t done a good job on the energy grid,” Rosselló told Jorge Ramos in an exclusive interview for his new show, “The Real America,” premiering Nov. 21 on Fusion. Rosselló calls the Corps of Engineers’ work on the grid “simply unacceptable,” and says they’ve shown “no sense of urgency.”

Behind the scenes with Jorge Ramos interviewing Puerto Rican Gov. Rossello

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The Army Corps of Engineers is aware of the criticism.

“We understand the frustration by the Governor of Puerto Rico and realize the importance of restoring power as quickly as possible,” Jose Sanchez, director of the Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Power Restoration, told Fusion in an email. “We continue to expedite the delivery of crews, material and equipment to the island in support of this urgent effort. We will not be satisfied until the people of Puerto Rico have safe and reliable power.”

FEMA tasked the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild the island’s energy grid in late September, several weeks before the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) hired Whitefish and Cobra Acquisitions to help accelerate the restoration process. The two private firms were awarded contracts totaling $500 million to work “in coordination” with the Corps of Engineers.

Cobra’s three-month, $200 million contract has raised some eyebrows in Puerto Rico, where you can spend days driving around the capital without spotting a single utility crew working to fix downed power lines and broken poles. The young firm, a subsidiary of Oklahoma-based Mammoth Energy Services, is only a year old and already charging salaries of $4,000 a day in Puerto Rico, according to daily El Nuevo Dia.

But any concerns about Cobra Acquisitions have been dwarfed by the uproar caused by Whitefish. The unusual contract awarded the two-man Montana firm with ties to the Trump administration has already prompted several independent investigations, and even an FBI inquiry, according to the Wall Street Journal. Whitefish signed its no-bid contract with Puerto Rico’s energy authority two weeks after President Trump visited the island and threw paper towels at storm victims.

Governor Rosselló, who claims he had nothing to do with approving the contract, recently caved to local and international pressure and called for the cancelation of the contract on Oct. 29. The termination process will take at least 30 days and could cost Puerto Rico untold millions in additional “demobilization costs” after already paying Whitefish $8 million to get up and running on the island.

Interestingly enough, Rosselló doesn’t blame any of the mess on Whitefish. While he’s very critical of the Army Corps of Engineers, the governor says he doesn’t want to jump to judgment on Whitefish before the investigations are complete. Rosselló says the only reason he’s terminating the contract is because the scandal became “an enormous distraction” that was preventing Puerto Rico from focusing on the job of restoring the power grid.

Rosselló is even trying to keep Whitefish workers on the island after the company leaves. The governor said he’s working on mutual-aid agreements with the governors of New York and Florida that would allow many of the Whitefish work crews to get rehired and continue working on Puerto Rico’s energy grid under new management.

“They’re already here; they have a lot of knowledge about what’s going on,” the governor said of the 350 sub-contracted Whitefish workers already on the island. “It is in our best interest to keep them over here.”

Not everyone is feeling as generous. San Juan’s outspoken Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has been calling for the nullification of the Whitefish contract for a week, hopes now that they’re leaving they’ll take the head of Puerto Rico’s power authority with them for signing the contract in the first place.

“Maybe he can get a job at Whitefish and they’ll have three employees instead of two,” Cruz said with a laugh.

Watch Jorge Ramos’ full half-hour special on Puerto Rico on the “The Real America” premiering Nov. 21 on Fusion.