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Puerto Rico just got hit with another big blackout

Another outage stemming from a line repaired by Whitefish plunged the island back into darkness.

The Miramar neighborhood is completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Millions of Puerto Ricans are again without power after a high-voltage transmission line that had been repaired by Whitefish Energy, a Montana contractor now facing an FBI investigation, failed again Wednesday.

The outage comes at an especially embarrassing time, following an announcement from government officials that they had restored electricity to 50 percent of utility customers.

This new blackout comes after an outage on November 9 that sank power generation across the island from 40 percent to 18 percent, a major blow to the island’s recovery after Hurricane Maria struck nearly two months ago.

And so again the majority of the island’s 3.4 million residents are again without power, extending what was already the longest power outage in US history.

Without electricity, many health and sanitation systems will go offline or go back to relying on diesel-powered generators.

As Vox has reported, Puerto Rico’s electric grid was vulnerable and dilapidated before the storm due to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s long history of financial woes and minimal maintenance and investment. But since the storm, the rebuilding of the grid has been further compromised by questionable decisions.

The largest repair contract, valued at $300 million, was awarded to Whitefish, then a two-person company, rather than invoking mutual aid agreements with other utilities as power companies in Florida and Texas did after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

The deal drew scrutiny from lawmakers and was later canceled. The line that failed in both blackouts had been repaired by Whitefish, according to a company press release. A spokesperson for the company told BuzzFeed last week that the company was not responsible for the blackout.

"None of the issues reported today with the outage have anything to do with the repairs Whitefish Energy performed," he said.

Legislators on Tuesday grilled Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and PREPA executive director Ricardo Ramos over the Whitefish deal as new documents showed exorbitant billing rates from the contractor and incompetence on the part of the government.

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