It was a leap of faith that brought Andy Techmanski and his Whitefish Energy crew to the ravaged island of Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria last September.
He knew the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was financially strapped, in the throes of bankruptcy. But Techmanski also knew he and his crew had the right skill set to help restore power lines. He had vacationed in Puerto Rico several times and knew the lay of the land.
It was a gamble that quickly shifted from project to mission once he got to Puerto Rico and began assessing a very dire situation.
“I’m a journeyman lineman, that’s the foundation I built Whitefish Energy on,” Techmanski said in an interview with the Daily Inter Lake. “I had a come-to-Jesus moment; I literally was getting emotional. I could see there was gridlock.
“I had this moment where I knew we had to find a way to help these people,” he recalled about that fateful day, Sept. 26, 2017, when he first saw the damage with his own eyes. “I thought, if we leave here today without a contract, they’ll be stuck in the dark for weeks, with potentially massive amounts of more hardship … This then became less of a project and more of a mission. I couldn’t leave without giving my word to those people. I couldn’t ethically not come back.”
ELEVEN MONTHS later, Techmanski and his Whitefish-based company are still reeling from the political maneuvering that abruptly shut down their restoration work. A nimble small business with the capacity to act quickly and ramp up a workforce, Whitefish Energy was the first crew to arrive on the island to help get the lights back on and assist with basic needs. It was an “exceptionally fast deployment,” Techmanski pointed out, given the nearly impossible logistics of getting equipment and manpower to an island that was all but cut off from the rest of the world.
Puerto Rico’s power authority stated publicly that Whitefish Energy was getting the job done, but after about a month on the job the company’s contract was pulled amid questions about how the power authority had awarded the contract and whether Whitefish Energy’s rates were inflated.
Whitefish Energy’s contract with the power authority called for an advance payment of $3.7 million to cover the costs of mobilizing and demobilizing 150 personnel, and payments on a time-and-materials basis, with a contract ceiling of $300 million. The contract set the hourly rate for a Whitefish Energy foreman at $231 per hour and $228 per hour for a Whitefish Energy journeyman lineman, along with $80 a day for food and $332 per worker per night’s lodging.
“What we found out later is that we were the most cost-effective solution,” Techmanski said. “The next contractor was asking $25 million advance payment.”
PREPA’s accounting has shown Whitefish Energy did the work efficiently and for far less money than the bigger companies that stepped in.
As controversy mounted, however, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello ordered the contract be pulled, even though Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Chief Executive Officer Ricardo Ramos resisted. Ramos continues to defend Whitefish Energy’s work on the island, telling CNN the company was “doing a great job.”
And in recent months a Federal Emergency Management Agency deputy administrator likewise acknowledged Whitefish Energy had taken a big risk and had done a good job.
Many have speculated the controversy was spurred by bigger utility companies wanting a bigger piece of the work, but whatever the reason, Techmanski and his crew were ordered to “take a hard stop.”
Their contract allowed them to work an additional 30 days after the contract was terminated, enabling Whitefish Energy to successfully repair and restore all five of the transmission line segments PREPA placed in its care, including repairs to more than 200 miles of critical distribution line infrastructure.
Whitefish Energy still has not been paid for the lion’s share of work completed, which included the repair and restoration of five transmission line segments in less than 60 days. The company has received just $36.9 million of the $141.1 million it is owed, according to PREPA reports, which show Whitefish Energy’s rate — which initially was criticized as being exorbitantly high — turned out to be tens of millions of dollars less than that charged by other contractors involved in the recovery effort.
As of Aug. 3, Cobra, a subsidiary of a publicly traded company, has submitted $960.4 million in invoices to PREPA, which included the repair of 10 transmission line segments completed.
Fluor, a global engineering and construction firm, received two task orders for about $1 billion in funding through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to an Army Corps press release. Fluor repaired eight transmission line segments.
And PowerSecure repaired two transmission line segments under a contract with a funding ceiling of $510 million.
All totaled, as of Aug. 3, other contractors had completed a combined 20 transmission line segments out of 33 originally assigned to them, for a total of more than $2 billion. https://emma.msrb.org/ES1189820-ES929866-ES1330812.pdf
PREPA has sought funds from FEMA to fund the restoration process, including the work performed by Whitefish Energy, Techmanski said. Although in recent weeks PREPA’s liquidity has improved, Whitefish and other contractors, including the mutual-aid entities, are still waiting for FEMA to work its way through the review and approval process for work performed, according to the power authority’s weekly report.
“We’re grateful that the accurate record of our work in Puerto Rico is coming to light,” Techmanski said, “even as our hearts remain with those on the island who are still struggling.”
He said the facts detailed in PREPA reports and other official records confirmed what he and his crew already knew.
“Our courageous team of over 500 worked around the clock facing perilous conditions over treacherous terrain to do the job they were hired to do,” Techmanski said.
Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.