House lawmakers grill LUMA officials in a contentious public hearing
By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar
Special to The Star
LUMA Energy President & CEO Wayne Stensby, accompanied by subordinates and lawyers from the private operator of Puerto Rico’s electric power transmission and distribution system, was the focus of a contentious public hearing in the island House of Representatives on Wednesday, in which there were accusations of giving erroneous information, claims of disrespect from both sides and constant interruptions to request more information.
The public hearing, which was presided over by independent Rep. Luis Raúl Torres Cruz, was also attended by Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) Executive Director Josué Colón Ortiz, who was not the direct target of the interrogation. However, he participated during the hearing by clarifying data on generation and comparing PREPA’s figures with the numbers provided by LUMA’s top management.
At the beginning of the hearing, Torres Cruz was emphatic that the officials had tried again to excuse themselves, “but we made arrangements with some officials of La Fortaleza to make requests to LUMA and PREPA to appear and thus avoid a lawsuit in court that would cost thousands of dollars.”
The hearing was characterized by generic responses from Stensby, who detailed in his presentation that “over the past 17 days, the more than 3,000 men and women of LUMA, including federal partners, have worked tirelessly together to respond to the devastating effects of Hurricane Fiona.”
“The chronology of that response is at the back of this room,” he said. “During these difficult conditions, we have conducted preliminary damage assessments, made crucial repairs to damaged infrastructure, overcome significant damage to road and bridge access, and restored service to the customers we are privileged to serve.”
“As President Joe Biden said on Monday, in times of crisis, we come together, and we must put aside our political agendas and do what we must do,” Stensby added. “To be clear, LUMA has no political agenda or goal, and we have one overriding mission: to build a better, more reliable, and cleaner energy future and to address the damage from decades of operational neglect and financial mismanagement.”
One of Stensby’s statements that raised eyebrows was when he mentioned, “I hope the hearings will provide an opportunity to thank the first responders, the staff of PREPA, and the men and women of LUMA who have done an incredibly difficult job recovering from a devastating hurricane. … Now more than ever is the time to respect each other and work together and put politics aside to build a more reliable energy future for generations to come.”
A visibly annoyed Torres Cruz replied that the public hearings “do not have a political agenda; this is an oversight task to determine how the people’s funds are being used.”
“Don’t disrespect us by saying that this is a political matter,” the lawmaker said over Stensby’s protests.
The hearing proceeded slowly through the use of translators. The LUMA CEO insisted that his presence at the public hearings was to talk about the response to Hurricane Fiona, but the legislators, particularly Torres Cruz, focused on asking questions that have gone unanswered in previous interventions: how many employees LUMA has, how many guards they have, how many brigades they have and how many personnel arrived from the United States to support the restoration efforts.
Each and every one of those questions was either not given a clear answer or was left unanswered. In each case, Torres Cruz gave a deadline of three working days to provide a report, under penalty of going to court.
At the moment, according to LUMA, there are 76,250 subscribers on the island without electrical service, a number that contrasts with PREPA’s, which places them above 100,000. Daniel Hernández, an engineer from Renewable Projects, intervened throughout the hearing to answer many questions. He said he would have to see the numbers in order to compare the discrepancy.
It was said during the hearing that 30% of the transmission lines were damaged in the strong Category 1 hurricane, and that seven substations were submerged after over 30 inches of rain fell in Puerto Rico at some points during the passage of Fiona. Stensby commented that LUMA’s response had been “historic” in terms of the speed with which they have energized the island, compared to hurricanes such as Maria, which was a Category 4.
Torres Cruz told him that he couldn’t compare the two storms.
“Let’s not compare oranges with bottles,” he retorted. “We are not going to allow it.”
Juan Rodríguez, an engineer in charge of assessing the damage, also had confrontations with Torres Cruz. When asked which lines were damaged, and he insisted that it was 30%, the legislator insisted that he “not digress” and that he give him the list of which lines were affected. He also demanded the composition of the 660 brigades that LUMA claims to have in Puerto Rico and details on their work.
Colón Ortiz, from PREPA, was questioned about the generation component and noted that the generators were put online in phases after the general blackout of Sunday, Sept. 18, to prevent the system from collapsing. With the generation that LUMA was able to raise, it was energizing the critical loads, such as the Medical Center in San Juan and Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Carolina, and he pointed out that “the process of energizing the circuits is done by LUMA.”
In his turn for questions, House Speaker Rafael “Tatito” Hernández Montañez asked how long LUMA had taken to make a preliminary damage assessment. Rodríguez answered that it had taken a week. When asked what the cost of the operation was, the engineer said, “I do not have the information at the moment, but we are working with COR3 [the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience] and FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency].”
“The estimates that were made were extremely preliminary,” Rodríguez said.
Stensby interjected that “there are going to be billions” in damages sustained by the electrical transmission system.
Regarding the money that will be requested from FEMA for the repair work, Stensby said that what has been fixed so far has been preliminary, but then permanent work will be done. When asked if he had worked in a tropical country prone to hurricanes before, he dodged the question by saying that he had employees with that experience, to which Hernández Montañez replied that “what we have here” is a clear demonstration of inexperience.
Stensby replied that “I do not agree with that statement.”
“We operate under an emergency plan that I had already provided in May,” he said. “That plan works together with PREB [the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau], the Department of Energy, and FEMA, which has worked in coordination with LUMA 24/7 effectively.”
“Plans are only as good as who executes them … and you don’t have that experience,” Hernández Montañez replied.
“The problem you have is that you hide information from the people of Puerto Rico,” Torres Cruz asserted. “If you would speak the truth, we would not have these problems. When asked for information, they never know or [never] have it, and that is not the way.”