Prepa chief attributes Tuesday’s blackout to ‘internal terrorism’
Utier calls charge a ‘confabulation,’ says tree pruning work along power lines in western region caused power outage
SAN JUAN – Electrical Industry & Irrigation Workers Union (Utier by its Spanish acronym) President Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo said Wednesday that a blackout on Tuesday afternoon that affected 400,000 customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) was caused by a tree and not terrorism, as the head of Prepa had charged earlier in the day.
Prepa Executive Director José Ortiz said during a morning radio interview that the almost two-hour power outage that began at 3:12 p.m. on Tuesday was an act of sabotage, which he said constituted “terrorism.” He said the incident was reported to the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
Ortiz contended that one or more people intentionally turned off the high-voltage line protection system, which forced the natural-gas-powered EcoEléctrica generation plant in Peñuelas to go offline, which, in turn, led to the blackout.
“Everything tends to indicate that there was a human hand in the event,” the Prepa chief said. “We found [on Tuesday night] a switch box that was manipulated and all of the protection of the system in the area between Arecibo and Isabela was eliminated. This was done manually.”
He added: “This was internal terrorism.”
Ortiz claimed the utility had collected “enough” evidence, including video footage, that demonstrates that the blackout was intentional.
“I think we have to end this nonsense,” he said.
Tensions between Utier and Prepa have heightened with last month’s announcement of the conclusion of a public-private partnership contract with LUMA Energy LLC consortium to operate, maintain and improve the utility’s transmission and distribution system. The labor union has come out against the deal, arguing that it will only serve to enrich private companies and not transform the troubled utility.
However, Figueroa, head of the largest labor union at Prepa, called Ortiz’s explanation a “confabulation,” claiming that the blackout was caused, instead, by “several problems” involving tree branch trimming work along power lines in Aguadilla and Mayagüez. He referred specifically to power lines connecting transmission towers 104 and 105 in Aguadilla and power lines spanning transmission towers 31 and 32, which connect the Pozo Hondo substation in Añasco with the Mayagüez TC.
“We have information that brigades were sent to two sectors where tree branch clearing areas where identified; one is in Aguadilla and the other is in Mayagüez. [I]t will be more than evidenced that the reason that the line had not entered into service was due to tree branch clearing problem, contrary to what the executive director told the people this morning,” the labor union chief said during a press conference.
Figueroa said that Ortiz will be proven wrong once the pruning work is completed in these areas and the power lines are successfully tested. He said the union had received information indicating that these lines are in “critical” condition.
“It will be more than proven that the reason for the line not entering into service was a problem of branch clearing, contrary to what the [Prepa] executive director told the country publicly this morning,” he said.
Calling Ortiz a “pathological liar,” Figueroa called on the Prepa chief to submit, under oath, all of the evidence to the federal authorities. He said Ortiz should issue a sworn statement to the effect that the blackout was an act of terrorism.
Figueroa questioned Ortiz’s contention that a manipulated switch box was the source of Tuesday’s power outage.
“To work with the switch box, the line had to be turned off first. Once it is turned off, the transmission and distribution center had to raise a red flag. The people he alleges could have done this had to have done this, not in minutes, but in hours. No one can work with that with the line turned on. If the intention was to affect the line, the person alleged to have this intention could not have done it,” the labor union head said.
“The line is turned off by the transmission and distribution center. It cannot be turned off with breakers because it is a live line. If someone tries to open the switch box, the flash will affect the person below,” Figueroa continued. “We are talking about 230,000 volts, so those operations are done remotely. The executive director apparently does not know how the [Prepa] systems work, but he is quick in articulating confabulations… and nonexistent plots.”
Figueroa noted that in another radio interview on Wednesday, José Sepúlveda, Prepa director of transmission and distribution, would not categorically affirm that it was an act of terrorism and that an investigation had to be done.
“If he could not come to a conclusion, how is it that the [Prepa] executive director, who clearly has no knowledge of the system, had the audacity of telling the country that it is an act of internal terrorism,” Figueroa said.
Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced declined Wednesday to comment on Ortiz’s charges of internal sabotage at Prepa, saying that she will wait until state and federal investigations into Tuesday’s blackout conclude.
“I, like all of the people of Puerto Rico, also am asking myself what happened. I also want it to be known what happened with this,” the governor said during an evening press conference, in which she stressed that “an answer must be given” regarding whether the power outage was caused by a tree branch or there was a criminal hand in it.
Vázquez also refused to comment on Ortiz’s calling the incident an act of “internal terrorism.” She was asked whether she would request Ortiz’s resignation as head of Prepa for his allegation.
“Let’s wait for the investigation,” she said.
At the end of December 2006, a fire knocked out the Palo Seco power plant in Toa Baja. Then-Prepa Executive Director Edwin Rivera accused Utier, which was in the midst of collective bargaining negotiations with the utility, of setting fire to the plant. Rivera was forced to resign early the next month after an FBI investigation found that Utier members had no role in the incident.
Meanwhile, rolling blackouts continued in Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon with the passing of a tropical storm to the south of the island.