Whitefish, Montana, population 8,000, is the home of Whitefish Energy. Established in 2015, it’s a company most had never heard of before it was awarded a $300 million contract to help restore power in Puerto Rico after the devastating effects of hurricane Maria. Currently, more than 70 percent of the island territory is still without electricity.
However, warranted to not, the length of time it’s taken to get the lights on has led to greater scrutiny of those involved. Especially when that company has no permanent office, only two official employees and obtained a nine-figure contract without a formal bidding process.
As reported by Buzzfeed.com and others, the selection of Whitefish puzzled many close to the situation, including members of the House Committee on Natural Resources and the governor of Puerto Rico, both of which have begun to scrutinize the deal.
Buzzfeed also reported on red flags surrounding the company’s ties to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native and acquaintance of Whitefish Energy CEO Andy Techmanski. Additionally, Joe Colonnetta, the head of one of Whitefish Energy’s financial backers, made significant contributions to President Trump’s election campaign.
On the other hand, Whitefish Energy’s website describes their CEO as an experienced linesman who has been involved with utility infrastructure projects around the world. The company works as a general contractor, bringing in subcontractors to complete the work.
In responding to critics, the company’s Twitter account (@WhitefishEnergy) offers evidence of progress, with work being done by the Jacksonville Electric Authority, the New York Power Authority, Arc American and additional journeyman hires. In total the company claims to have more than 300 workers on the ground in Puerto Rico.
Arc American is an electrical utility contractor that worked in the northeast after SuperStorm Sandy in 2012.
It’s also important to note that Puerto Rico is already about $74 billion in debt. So when the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority had to select a vendor, they admittedly went with the lower bid, which was Whitefish.
Much of the work involves rebuilding an entire grid, often through mountainous areas without roads or performing excavation operations to find buried lines. The facts remain that the scope of the work is intense, logistics are complicated and Whitefish is a small company.
So while the company’s political connections are an easy target, their progress could simply be a case of getting what you pay for.