[FACT CHECK] LUMA: “This Week We Launched an Initiative” to Remove Vegetation to Deal with Blackouts

Verdict: Misleading

Imprimir Más

Juan Saca, president and chief executive officer of LUMA

Photo taken from Facebook

“This week, we launched the most important initiative to address the main cause of service interruptions in the history of Puerto Rico.” With this statement, LUMA Energy announced last  June the start of the initiative to cut down trees and remove other types of vegetation affecting the safety and reliability of the electrical service in Puerto Rico. “This initiative funded by FEMA is an important part of this work,” said LUMA President Juan Saca, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency funds.

However, the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) confirmed that only 1.4% of those funds are currently available. Saca failed to say that what the private energy distribution company started in June was only one of the 31 projects required for the task. He also failed to specify that the approval of that first project, which will take place in San Juan, was delayed due to a lack of information required by FEMA from LUMA.

“The original [San Juan] project was presented in June 2023, but additional information was required from the applicant [LUMA] for us to process it. The required information for this project was received in March 2024,” FEMA told CPI in a written statement. FEMA approved $16,336,005 for the project on June 4 of this year, which will help eliminate vegetation in contact with distribution lines in the San Juan region.

To approve a project, FEMA Deputy Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator for post-Hurricane María recovery, Andrés García Martinó, said the agency needs to know “what, where, and how.”

“I was at a meeting in New York in March [2024], and there we held a meeting that I convened with LUMA and COR3 staff because there was information that we had not received and that we needed to be able to evaluate and move forward,” said García Martinó, who added that LUMA submitted the requested data 48 hours following the meeting.

“The [pruning] project is not only about removing vegetation under the lines, but in many cases, they have to describe to us where they will access those lines, and if they’re going to open a path. They have to tell us where they’re going to open [access] because this also implies the impact of the removal of the earth’s crust and potential impact on the vegetation, flora and fauna,” he added.

FEMA stated that the work should be limited to what is necessary to reduce similar future damage to transmission and distribution systems. Each project must include enough information about the location and type of work to allow for environmental review, and must provide documentation of how long-term maintenance will be done. As a hazard mitigation proposal, projects must comply with all applicable environmental and historic preservation laws, regulations, and executive orders.

According to the September 2023 progress plan that LUMA submits to FEMA every 90 days, the recently approved project was scheduled to begin in December 2023. But it was postponed three times.

In July 2023, LUMA submitted 17 vegetation clearing projects to FEMA for approval, two in November, and 11 in December, according to the progress plan for December of that year. In total, 31 projects.

LUMA announced in a press release last September that the projects will involve clearing “over 16,000 miles of transmission and distribution power lines, as well as critical substations and telecom sites.” The consortium predicted the initiative would last three years.

If LUMA Submitted 31 Projects, Why Did FEMA Approve Just One?

García Martinó explained the difference between creating a project in the FEMA management system and when the project has all the details in the required format, known as “scope of work,” and is approved. An applicant can open a project in the FEMA system, but the agency will not evaluate and approve it until it has all the information requested by the agency.

“It’s one thing for the project to be opened in the system and acknowledged. Another thing is when we consider that they submitted the project ready for us [FEMA] to be able to work on it,” he said.

Although LUMA’s latest progress plans to FEMA indicate that the scopes of work for these projects were submitted in detail, FEMA is asking for more information to evaluate them.

García Martinó said the projects are evaluated individually, and next is one in the nearby Bayamón area, which was missing information. He added that LUMA submitted the requested data to FEMA in mid-June 2024. “The expectation is that [the project in] Bayamón will be approved in the next 90 days at the latest,” said the federal official.

The next vegetation removal projects in line are in Mayagüez, Ponce, and Caguas, but as of mid-June, FEMA still did not have complete information from LUMA, García Martinó said.

When the CPI asked about the criteria for approving only the San Juan project, FEMA said in a general manner that it was used as a model for developing subsequent vegetation projects based on the hazard mitigation criteria under Section 406 of the Stafford Act that governs that agency.

After several requests, LUMA did not reveal to the CPI which project would impact the area of ​​transmission line 39,000, which — according to Saca — experienced a failure due to vegetation that caused a power outage affecting more than 350,000 customers on June 12 of this year. Seven of the 31 vegetation removal projects related to transmission lines will begin in November 2026 and June 2027, according to the June 2024 progress report LUMA submitted to FEMA.

Although LUMA has said that these projects will be financed with $1.2 billion in FEMA funds, García Martinó emphasized that this amount is a cost estimate that LUMA shared with FEMA. The CPI requested an interview with engineer Juan Rodríguez, LUMA’s vice president of Capital Programs, which was not granted.

LUMA’s announcement about the launch of the vegetation removal initiative received a verdict of “misleading” because it has not been fully initiated. The funds will be allocated as each of the 31 projects is approved, and the president of LUMA did not say that for almost a year, FEMA lacked information to launch the evaluation and approval of the first project.

Deja un comentario

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *