After armed federal agents entered a warehouse owned by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, on January 6, they said the warehouse had contained rebuilding materials that they seized to distribute on the island. The Intercept’s report on the incident has led to calls on the island for criminal prosecutions of PREPA officials, with the governor referring the matter to the Department of Justice.
“PREPA affirms that the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] and their contractors have had access to them since before the alleged discovery,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló wrote in the statement asking the Department of Justice to investigate the matter. “Therefore, we are referring the matter to the Department of Justice in order to analyze the facts and determine whether there was a commission of crimes or negligent action.”
In a statement issued Wednesday night, Puerto Rico Senate minority leader Eduardo Bhatia said, “Lying about not having the parts to cover the inefficiency of PREPA is outrageous and those responsible must be taken before state and federal authorities to be criminally processed immediately.”
But PREPA isn’t the only player involved in the island’s grid restoration efforts with a cache of materials. Photos sent to The Intercept from UTIER, the electric utility workers’ union in Puerto Rico, show another store of materials — many of them more recently acquired and potentially immediately useful to rebuilding efforts — at a warehouse in Ponce controlled by the USACE itself.
Stored at the Ponce warehouse are concrete and metal poles used to erect power lines, as well as a large quantity of electrical wires of varying sizes and cross arms “in vast quantities,” Fredyson Martinez, UTIER’s vice president, told me by phone on Thursday. There are also several shipping containers, the contents of which are unknown. All of the materials shown, he noted, “are critical in the recovery effort that PREPA workers and contractors are doing to restore the power grid.”
“That is not normal to have such quantities of materials in the crisis that we are having in Puerto Rico. For example, I have never seen such quantity of cross arms in my life,” Martinez said, “The amount of [containers of wires] is also too much knowing what is needed. And all that just sitting there while the workers make miracles with the few things they get each day. It’s sad.”
“USACE is accusing PREPA of doing something that they are doing on a larger scale. They’re mostly just punching back,” he said, referencing ongoing criticisms from UTIER and others on the island of USACE’s work there.
Asked about the photos and why materials had not been distributed out to linemen, USACE spokesperson Luciano Vera said, “Ponce is one of our main distribution points for materials. We have multiple barges arriving weekly with containers of cable, poles, and other materials. As the thousands of pieces of materials arrive to the port, they are distributed to work sites throughout the island and to one of our distribution points for future use. With the increase of materials arriving to the island, we have increased storage capacity, and contractors are able request materials from one of our distribution points for upcoming work sites.”
USACE for most of its time working in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria has had two warehouses, one in the capital, San Juan, and another in Ponce, on the south end of the island. USACE recently began using another warehouse in Bayamon, but line workers have been consistently frustrated with the pace of recovery rooted partially — according to UTIER — in the amount of time it takes to transfer materials from USACE’s two, and now three, warehouses to job sites around the island. “USACE is looking at other options as well, as capacity increases,” Vera said in an email.
According to Marinez, a representative from USACE had informed UTIER that they would begin using PREPA’s more geographically distributed warehouses to aid in recovery efforts three weeks ago, though to date they are still only using the three warehouses listed above. Asked about the exchange, Vera wrote, “Our original plans included utilizing 7 regional warehouse locations around the island. … That being said, we are currently re-evaluating those plans and fine-tuning our efforts to increase efficiency. Our approach is to constantly explore any and every way possible to get materials into the hands of contractors faster.”
Another security contractor who was stationed in the island’s southeast in November and December said the crews he accompanied had access to the Palo Seco site as early as late November, though linemen were only allowed access to the area outside of Warehouse 5, where PREPA had left old or used equipment outside. He was traveling with a group of workers contracted by Cobra LLC and told me that PREPA officials were the only ones with access to materials inside of the warehouse. He saw what he identified to be PREPA trucks ferrying materials into the warehouse.
“The guys from stateside had never worked like that before,” the source, who spent several days at the Palo Seco site, told me by phone. “Everything they build they start from new. When we got out there, it was a big culture shock for them. There were parts that were bent that we had to bend back and fabricate, cut down a bigger section to make it fit, from all the used parts laying around.”
The team he worked with was granted access to the Palo Seco site to assemble materials for rebuilding a downed substation on the island of Vieques. When they were working on a different project, they were denied access to Warehouse 5 pending written permission from higher-ups in PREPA management, he said. The utility’s parsimony with its materials and facilities is reportedly rooted in a clause in the contract between PREPA and Cobra, which states that Cobra will provide its own equipment for all grid restoration efforts.
If contractors were indeed working on a Vieques power substation, that would corroborate PREPA’s claims as to what the materials housed at Warehouse 5 were used for. But it would also contradict claims by UTIER and PREPA that those materials are — for the most part — not immediately useful to rebuilding efforts.
The truth is only just beginning to unfold.
In the wake of the criticism, UTIER says the materials discovered at the PREPA warehouse were largely from the utility engineering and transmission division. Many of the materials have allegedly been stored there for several years, according to UTIER, and some were outdated and unusable in grid restoration efforts.
“That PREPA warehouse has equipment and materials that we use for work on transmission lines,” Martinez said. “That is not the usual materials that linemen are using to restore the power. … Those materials were there for a long time.”
PREPA has not responded to The Intercept’s requests for comment on reports about the January 6 seizure or for this story. Speaking to the Puerto Rican outlet El Vocero, PREPA official Jorge Bracero echoed Martinez, saying that Warehouse 5 “has materials that are for capitalized projects … pending construction projects such as substations.” In another statement, Bracero said the USACE had access to the materials in question well before the discovery the previous weekend. In a statement to The Intercept, USACE reiterated that it learned of Warehouse 5 on January 5, a day before the raid.
UTIER is now requesting that the USACE release a full inventory of the supplies recovered on January 6 so that both line workers and the public can know which of the materials stored there can be used to restore the grid.