SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Following a massive fire at Costa Sur Power Plant and the ensuing island-wide blackout that lasted multiple days, the firefighters union has called on the government to cancel its contract with LUMA Energy.
“This is not just a firefighter issue, it is an issue that affects all Puerto Ricans,” the Syndicate of United Firefighters of Puerto Rico (SBUPR, in Spanish) president, José Tirado Garcia, told Latino Rebels. “Puerto Ricans do not deserve this. So faced with this situation, we ask for the contract to be canceled.”
Tirado Garcia cited LUMA’s slow response to the archipelago’s most recent blackout as one of the main reasons they were asking the government to end its contract. Additionally, he pointed to the fact that the blackout was not caused by an atmospheric event, like a hurricane or an earthquake, or “an accident caused by a human.”
On Wednesday, April 6, a breaker from Unit #5 of the Costa Sur Power Plant malfunctioned and caught fire. The fire quickly spread to the surrounding breakers and eventually led to an island-wide blackout that launched the approximately 3.1 million Puerto Ricans into darkness. The lack of power also caused hundreds of thousands of people to lose running water in their homes and businesses.
LUMA predicted that it would have most of the system up and running by Thursday night, only to later move that deadline into Friday. It wasn’t until Saturday that most Puerto Ricans got their power back on.
At press time, about 2,000 customers are still without electricity.
Guayanilla firefighters were quick to spring into action at Costa Sur after the fire was first noticed by LUMA personnel. When they arrived at Costa Sur, they found two substations were completely engulfed in flames. They managed to douse the fire by midnight.
“More fires, more blackouts, and every two months they ask the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau for a price hike,” SBUPR President Tirado Garcia said.
He claims that firefighters responded to over 30 emergency situations directly linked to the blackout. Many of these emergencies consisted of people mishandling their generators in hopes of getting their electricity back.
LUMA Energy, a consortium between the Canadian-based ATCO and the U.S.-based Quanta Services, took over the distribution and transmission of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid in June 2021. A few days after LUMA Energy took over the already fragile electrical grid, there was a massive blackout that left half of Puerto Rico without power. Since then, there have been 13 separate blackouts and a 66 percent rate increase in the price of electricity.
LUMA Energy claims they are still in the preliminary stages of their investigation into what caused the fire. The investigation will take months, according to the company.
Union of Workers of the Electrical and Irrigation Industry (UTIER) President Angel Figueroa Jaramillo has said on Twitter that the accident was caused by a lack of preventative maintenance on the breakers.
Evidencia y explicación de lo que hablamos el domingo sobre las causas del apagón de LUMA
Miren el hilo que están los videos pic.twitter.com/OztMH3mdYk
— Angel Figueroa Jaramillo (@jaramilloutier) April 13, 2022
LUMA Energy President Wayne Stensby claims that, according to evidence they have, the maintenance on the breakers was up-to-date. The Puerto Rico Energy Bureau (NEPR) will hire an independent investigator to look into what caused the blackout.
According to the Puerto Rico Fire Department, their final report investigating the fire should be ready within a week.
According to a document signed by the NEPR on May 31, 2021, LUMA Energy cannot be held responsible for damages to its clients unless the accidents were caused by “crass negligence.”
“Firefighters are there because they’re devoted, because they like serving the people of Puerto Rico,” SBUPR President Tirado Garcia told Latino Rebels. But he also claims that the constant electricity outages, lack of proper safety equipment, and long hours have taken their toll on the firefighters. He signaled that 400 positions were still vacant across the archipelago and filling in for those positions had the firefighters spread pretty thin.
These sentiments are felt throughout the Fire Department. Guayanilla’s firefighters are currently housed within a plywood cabin they were moved to in early 2022 after their original building was damaged by the 2020 earthquakes.
A firefighter at the Guayanilla station described the cabin as a “place that is not worthy” to work in.
Earlier this year, the union demanded a wage increase for the dangerous duties. Their demands were met with derision by Governor Pierluisi, who said “nobody here is obligated to be a policeman nor a firefighter, but the person who dedicates themselves to that vocation has to assume a great responsibility.”
Firefighters responded to the Governor’s remarks with a strike. After dozens of firefighters showed up to La Fortaleza (the Governor’s Mansion) alongside teachers, paramedics, and other public sector workers, they pressured the government into promising them a $500 a month increase starting in June. This raise will bump their monthly salary up to $2,250.
“Those $500 are still promised,” SBUPR President Tirado Garcia told Latino Rebels. “The government of Puerto Rico, even though they get millions of dollars in federal money, a lot of that remains trapped in bureaucracy.”
LUMA Energy did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is a freelance journalist, mostly focused on civil unrest, extremism, and political corruption. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL