Months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico, the United States territory continues to struggle to rebuild. A new report from The Intercept suggests that progress is being held up in part by a dispute between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA. Each has accused the other of hoarding building supplies.
The federal government conducted an armed raid of a PREPA facility early this year, seizing building materials it said PREPA had failed to properly distribute. Federal agents seized these materials for redistribution; some are calling for PREPA officials to face criminal charges.
However, Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, wants to put the matter in the hands of the Department of Justice to investigate, as PREPA claims that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had full access to the materials in the facility even before the raid.
“PREPA affirms that the USACE and their contractors have had access to them since before the alleged discovery,” Rosselló said according to Carribbean Business. “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.”
The Intercept reports that it has received photos that show a USACE-controlled warehouse with a surplus of materials. UTIER, the electric utility workers’ union in Puerto Rico, sent photos alleging that the warehouse had concrete and other material badly needed by recovery effort.
Fredyson Martinez, UTIER’s vice president, said that workers have to make do with what they are able to collect themselves, even though the Army has a surplus of materials that could make their work easier.
“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.”
Martinez believes that the Army and federal government are accusing PREPA of hoarding materials to distract from their own wrongdoing. “USACE is accusing PREPA of doing something that they are doing on a larger scale," Martinez said. "They’re mostly just punching back,”
USACE spokesperson Luciano Vera claims that there is nothing suspicious about the Army warehouse in the photos, and said that it is full of materials simply because it serves as a clearinghouse for shipments that arrive on the island.
"With the increase of materials arriving to the island, we have increased storage capacity, and contractors are able to request materials from one of our distribution points for upcoming work sites,” Vera said.
As this controversy brews, three employees working for the PREPA were suspended for bribery. According to PBS NewsHour, the employees allegedly requested money in exchange for expedited access to power.
PREPA is Puerto Rico's only energy provider, which puts all of the island's 1.5 million energy subscribers at the mercy of its officials. A total of 25 PREPA officials are currently under investigation for bribery.