US legislators probing Puerto Rico power outages demand data

A wooden Puerto Rican flag is displayed on the dock of the Condado lagoon, where multiple selective blackouts have been recorded in the past days, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. Power outages across the island have surged in recent weeks, with some lasting up to several days. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) (Carlos Giusti, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SAN JUAN – A U.S. House committee on Friday demanded that the company in charge of the transmission and distribution of power in Puerto Rico release key data amid widespread outages in the U.S. territory that have outraged and frustrated many.

The Committee on Natural Resources ordered Luma to submit by Oct. 22 information including the number of maintenance workers it employs, the estimated amount of time one generation unit will be inoperable and the compensation packages and titles of employees who earn more than $200,000 a year.

The letter comes two days after officials including Luma CEO Wayne Stensby testified at a hearing held by the committee to learn more about the ongoing outages in Puerto Rico.

“Many of your answers were incomplete. You refused to answer others,” stated the committee, which oversees U.S. territorial affairs.

Luma previously was sued by Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives for similar information, with the island’s Supreme Court ordering the company to turn over the data, although that hasn’t occurred. At the time, Stensby said the company is private and the information confidential.

Luma issued a statement on Friday saying its more than 3,100 employees are working hard despite “the numerous and very difficult challenges from those that oppose the transformation,” adding that much misinformation has been spread. However, the company did not address the questions and concerns raised by the committee.

The outages have forced schools and workplaces to close and sparked concern for those who depend on insulin or oxygen. The lack of power also has led to losses at thousands of businesses across the island, including a small store that Carmen Lydia de Jesús owns in the central mountain town of Ciales.

She estimates she has lost $6,000 as a result of not being able to open her business, noting that power surges also sparked a fire at her house and caused more than $4,000 in damage.

“It’s a miracle I wasn’t burned,” she said. “We can’t continue like this. This is abusive.”

Luma took the reins of Puerto Rico’s transmission and distribution on June 1 and has faced sharp criticism ever since. The U.S. House committee letter said that in some cases, conditions have worsened since Luma took over. Legislators demanded information including the number and length of outages, the causes behind every service disruption and the number of voltage fluctuations that caused property damage.

Current and former government officials have blamed the outages on the retirement of experienced employees and a lack of maintenance of generation units owned and managed by Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority. They also note the power grid remains fragile after Hurricane Maria struck the island in September 2017 as a Category 4 storm, and that reconstruction has yet to start.

On Friday, the power authority’s governing board approved a declaration of a state of emergency to speed up contracts and the purchases of costly equipment, although Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said he didn’t feel it was needed since the authority was already authorized to do that.