Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
A $300 million contract to restore electricity across storm-ravaged Puerto Rico has been given to a Montana-based company that has never handled a project of this magnitude and has existed for just two years. The Washington Post reports that Whitefish Energy is based in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. According to the Daily Beast, the company “is primarily financed by a private-equity firm founded and run” by Joe Colonnetta, a big-money donor to the Trump campaign. Zinke admits knowing Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski, but dismissively chalks it up to being from a small town where “everybody knows everybody.”
The selection of such an inexperienced firm—Whitefish had just two employees when Hurricane Maria hit, and its previous biggest federal contract was $1.3 million for 4.8 miles of road in Arizona—seems particularly odd given the more obvious choices available. The Post indicates that the state-backed power authority Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, has “opted to hire Whitefish rather than activate the ‘mutual aid’ arrangements it has with other utilities” which have quickly restored power other major U.S. areas. In fact, “the Puerto Rican utility has not replied to offers of assistance from mutual-aid partners, according to the American Public Power Association, which coordinates such operations.”
“The fact that there are so many utilities with experience in this and a huge track record of helping each other out, it is at least odd why [the utility] would go to Whitefish,” Susan F. Tierney, who previously held a senior role in the U.S. Energy Department, told the Post. “I’m scratching my head wondering how it all adds up.”
“The size and unknown details of this contract raises numerous questions,” Parish Braden, a flack for the House Committee on Natural Resources, told the outlet. “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.”
Despite the island’s debt problems, which Trump has repeatedly referenced amid criticism of his administration’s slow recovery response, pay rates for Whitefish employees are sky-high. Site supervisors will make $330 an hour, and subcontractors will pull in $462 per hour. According to the Post, “Whitefish also charges nightly accommodation fees of $332 per worker and almost $80 per day for food.”
Whitefish CEO Techmanski believes the paychecks may be rolling in for some time, calling the Puerto Rican situation “among the worst that I have ever seen,” per the Post. “It will take months, if not years, to repair the entire grid to full operational status.
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.