Torres vows to work with EPA to bring CUC into compliance

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres held a conference call with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials last Friday over ongoing issues with the local utility related to non-compliance with federal court stipulated orders, Saipan Tribune learned.

The meeting included discussions over the threat of federal receivership, among others, and concern over chief engineer John Riegel’s job safety after Commonwealth Utilities Corp. officials last week sued him over an amendment contract they signed but said they did not approve of over certain provisions.

Multiple sources said EPA have been informed of Riegel’s situation and that the agency has noted concerns about the role that Riegel plays in overseeing many of the federal grants to the utility under EPA.

Saipan Tribune gathered that CUC officials did not partake in the Friday meeting.

“The governor has been in communication with U.S. EPA regarding the ongoing stipulated orders and their concerns over management positions at CUC,” the Torres administration told Saipan Tribune yesterday. “In the conversation, the governor expressed an interest to work alongside EPA officials to bringing CUC into compliance as soon as possible.”

The administration was sent a series of questions on the meeting but official details so far are scant. Torres flew off-island this weekend to attend the GOP National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

House minority leader Ramon Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan), who says he had conversation with the governor on the EPA call, says CUC may be trying their best “but the system that is in place seems not to be in compliance.”

“The reason why is obvious. The stipulated orders are obvious. You cannot ignore that.”

In a recent CUC board meeting, board director Eric San Nicolas dismissed the EPA concerns on vacant management positions as “highly opinionated.”

“The next step is how to solve this,” Tebuteb went on to say. “Because it doesn’t seem to be entertained by the board members.”

Tebuteb wants some degree of assurance on the state of utility, not only for the EPA, but for everyone across the system especially customers.

He wants an assuring message so that people “are not in suspense and worry” over their utility.

“It’s not fair for the hardworking people at CUC who are doing their job, because this issue on stipulated orders are management” ones, he said. “It’s not the people who are there who are the backbone” of CUC. “The stipulated order [ties into] management presentation, or lack of management presentation, or which is really understanding the issue.”

On CUC’s suing of Riegel, Tebuteb said, “That may be their rightful process but that’s aggravated the issue, not fixed it. Instead of really looking for a resolution, it becomes a little defensive.”

In a May letter to CUC, EPA essentially said that CUC had limited its search for its top executive director position to local outlets despite promises made to expand personnel searches off-island, and that lengthy vacancies in three of eight senior management were “adversely impacting operations.”

The EPA said that CUC had “not voiced a plausible strategy for filling these positions.”

In their June response, CUC disagreed and suggested that EPA’s minimum qualification requirements for utility manager posts were “extremely rigid” and should be “modified.”

In May, CUC acting executive director Gary Camacho fired without cause former chief financial officer Matt Yaquinto.

The CFO position is a stipulated order position, and CUC is required to “appoint another qualified individual within one hundred fifty (150) days of the date of the vacancy.”

CUC executive director Alan Fletcher also stepped down last summer after the board voted not to renew his contract.

CUC has been incurring penalties as it continues to fail compliance with stipulated orders. For SO1, which includes the executive director and the deputy executive director positions, CUC faces $2,000 to $5,000 per day in penalties. CUC has already accrued $40 million each in penalties for SO1 and SO2.

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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