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Small Montana Company Awarded $300 Million To Help Restore Puerto Rico's Power Grid


A month after Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico's electric grid, 75 percent of the island is still without power. Among those hired to help with repairs is a Montana company with only two employees. Its contract in Puerto Rico is for $300 million of work. That's raising questions, including from Congress.

Nicky Ouellet of Montana Public Radio has been reporting on this, and she joins us now. And, Nicky, this Montana company is called Whitefish Energy. It has a $300 million contract, but it has only two employees. Obviously, it's contracting with lots of subcontractors who are going to be doing the work. What exactly is the skill of Whitefish Energy here that lands them the contract?

NICKY OUELLET, BYLINE: It seems like the skillset that Whitefish Energy brings is that they're very quick to mobilize crews that have experience working in mountainous terrain. Puerto Rico is unusual in that a lot of the work won't be accessible by ground crews, which is traditionally how you get power back online. Instead, they're going to need helicopters to access sites in the mountain range. And that's kind of where Whitefish Energy's skillset is and the niche that they've cut out for themselves.

SIEGEL: The company is based in Whitefish, Mont., logically enough, which is the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Any connection between Zinke and this contract?

OUELLET: Whitefish is a small town, so they might know each other. But both Whitefish Energy and Secretary Zinke have said that they were not in touch for this particular contract.

SIEGEL: In other major power outages, we expect utility companies to call upon one another for help. And some did travel to Florida after Hurricane Irma. Why didn't other utilities go to Puerto Rico and help them out in the way that they would with a power outage on the mainland?

OUELLET: When I spoke with the state-owned Puerto Rico power electric authority, which is also called PREPA, they said that they had already signed on with Whitefish before Hurricane Maria. And Whitefish had beat out a couple of other companies bidding on a contract with PREPA. Those other companies asked for a payment guarantee. Whitefish did not, so PREPA went with Whitefish. It seems like phone lines were down, and communications just weren't happening after Maria struck. And so PREPA was never able to make that call for mutual aid that typically happens.

SIEGEL: PREPA, the Puerto Rican state-owned utility, declared bankruptcy. I guess that limited their powers of negotiating.

OUELLET: That's right. They are reportedly $9 billion in debt at the moment. And I think there was some worry that they might not be able to pay for the mutual aid that would typically come after a disaster like Hurricane Maria.

SIEGEL: Such a big contract for such a small outfit has - you know, it seems quite unusual. What's Congress's interest in all this?

OUELLET: Congress says that it will be tracking how Whitefish Energy does in its work for PREPA. A House Committee on Natural Resources wants to take a closer look as part of its oversight on Puerto Rico's recovery as a whole.

SIEGEL: Do we have any idea what kind of job Whitefish has done so far in Puerto Rico trying to get the grid back up and running?

OUELLET: Whitefish was contracted to rebuild 100 miles of transmission lines in Puerto Rico. And they say it's going well so far. But they are delayed by downed debris blocking access to their work sites. And that's been kind of a point of frustration. They're posting daily updates on social media that are really exciting videos of men hanging from helicopters, swinging in the air over exciting music. But it's slow going.

SIEGEL: Montana Public Radio's Nicky Ouellet, thanks for talking with us.

OUELLET: Thanks so much.

SIEGEL: And this afternoon, the governor of Puerto Rico said that he is ordering an audit of all contracts made by the local electric energy authority.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OLYMPIANS' "EUROPA AND THE BULL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.