Whitefish Energy’s contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid, surreptitiously signed six days after Hurricane Maria hit the island, is proving to be even shadier than previously reported. While the Montana-based company’s $300 million deal has since been canceled, their work continues on the island until Nov. 30, and at staggeringly gouged rates.
Leaked copies of Whitefish’s contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), revealed that it was charging $322 an hour for a foreman on a power line crew, $319 an hour for a journeyman, and another $412 a day per worker for food and lodging. Whitefish, however, has only been paying its senior power linemen wages well under what it’s charging PREPA for, according to The New York Times.
Six electrical workers from Kissimmee, FL, who are working on the island are earning $42 an hour, plus overtime. Senior power lineman from Lakeland, FL, are earning $63 an hour. Public records show that workers from Jacksonville, FL, have earned up to $100 an hour working double overtime. None of the workers have earned anywhere close to the $320 an hour PREPA agreed to pay Whitefish.
Whitefish’s apparent price gauging extends beyond worker compensation. Take, for example, how much Whitefish charged PREPA for aviation fuel and helicopter rentals:
Prepa agreed to pay Whitefish three times the going rate for aviation fuel, and about double what a helicopter specially equipped for transmission line construction should cost, according to industry insiders and people with knowledge of the Whitefish contract. The company is also billing about $4,000 an hour to rent a helicopter; companies that specialize in transmission line construction said that price is more than double what they charge.
Their markups were so blatantly egregious, it lead a senior executive at Florida Power & Light to describe Whitefish’s labor costs as “empirically questionable.” Johnny Rodríguez Ortiz, president of the organization of retired electrical workers in Puerto Rico, openly told The Times that markups like Whitefish’s were used in the past as kickbacks for corrupt officials.
A spokesperson for Whitefish defended their pricing as necessary to “entice” people to work in Puerto Rico. Even as three separate investigations into how exactly Whitefish, whose investors include a prominent donor to President Trump’s campaign, secured a multimillion contract with PREPA in the first place, chief executive Andy Techmanski has maintained its innocence. The investigations, Techmanski said, are a “witch hunt.” Where have I heard that before?
Whitefish’s price gouging is all the more troubling given that more than 50% of Puerto Rico remains without power, nearly seven weeks after the storm. For a few days last week only 18% of the island had power after a high-voltage transmission line, which Whitefish energy repaired, failed.