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Union complains: Lack of materials to rebuild Puerto Rico power grid

By on October 30, 2017

SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) lacks materials to repair the electrical grid, so it was forced to recycle equipment that was already in use when Hurricane María ravaged the island or to find materials from areas designated as “scrap.”

These comments were made by Freddyson Martínez, vice president of the Irrigation & Electrical Workers Union (Utier by its Spanish acronym) to Caribbean Business. The direct consequence of recycling materials is it causes delays in the repairs because workers must verify that the equipment is suitable for reuse.

“You have to check and carefully look at the material to ensure it will not break because, if it already had an impact, then it could break down,” Martínez said.

An example of Prepa’s deteriorating infrastructure. (Agustín Criollo / CB)

Reaction could not be immediately obtained from Prepa on this concern. However, during a recent visit by media to the Palo Seco Powerplant in Cataño, Prepa Executive Director Ricardo Ramos said the utility had enough materials for repairs.

Nonetheless, several Prepa workers complained last week to Caribbean Business about the lack of materials—despite the U.S. government’s subsidization of a large part of the cost to bring Puerto Rico out of the darkness. Prepa has also authorized millions of dollars in contracts, such as the controversial contract, for up to$300 million, awarded to Whitefish Energy to repair the power grid, which was canceled over the past weekend.

“We are missing poles, crossheads, fittings, wires, trucks and insulators. There are areas where there are no boots for the workers,” Martinez said.

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Lack of materials was the focus last Wednesday at a meeting among district supervisors, at which an electrical engineer from Utuado, who was not identified, said that whatever equipment was salvageable, will be used.

Martínez said that when the crews do repairs, they reuse whatever materials are found onsite or use them for other locations. However, the workers also use whatever materials they can find in areas designated as “scrap” at the utility’s facilities. “They go in there and check,” he said.

What is the consequence of having to recycle equipment? Martínez said it is not the same thing to pick up a brand-new pole for a repair than having to look for one that has already been used because this delays the work to repair the grid. In addition, workers must complete the needed verification to ensure the material is suitable for use.

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Prepa accidents

As of Friday, Utier has reported 14 work-related accidents during efforts to restore power to the island, but Prepa is reporting 19 accidents.

A source within the utility said five workers were in accidents during repairs to the electric system following the passage of Hurricane Irma. However, 14 more workers have been hurt on the job since then.

Martínez attributed the accidents to fatigue since utility workers are on the job in 10- to 12-hour shifts.

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