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‘There is leaking all over the place’

By Zaldy Dandan

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Aug. 25, 2008) – Two Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) senators wanted to amend the House bill allowing the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. to hire at least 19 guest workers until 2010, but Senate President Pete P. Reyes reminded them that the situation at Power Plant 1 needed "immediate action."

Senate Vice President Felix T. Mendiola gestures during the Senate session, Friday, on Capital Hill. Photo by Mark Peñaranda

House Bill 16-142 is expected to be signed into law by the governor once it reaches his desk.

Before the Senate passed the measure by an 8-0 vote on Friday, Senate Vice President Felix T. Mendiola, Covenant-Rota, and Sen. Luis P. Crisostimo, D-Saipan, proposed to insert a provision requiring CUC to "ensure the training of locals."

If amended, the bill would have to be sent back to the House of Representatives.

Reyes, R-Saipan, said he has been a long-time supporter of local hiring, but "the situation at Power Plant 1 is so severe — it is crying out for help. The only engines that are operational are 2 and 3."

The island’s main source of electricity, Power Plant 1 has eight engines.

"The situation there is so critical," Reyes said. "When an engine malfunctions the employees have to drop what they’re doing to fix it. There is leaking all over the place. Employees are rushing around to fix these leaks — some of the workers are already burned out; they don’t want to come back anymore; they’re physically and mentally tired; some are already resigning or retiring; they don’t care about [overtime pay] anymore."

According to Reyes, who visited the plant on Thursday with Crisostimo and Rep. Victor B. Hocog, Ind.-Rota, "CUC told us that if there’s no immediate relief an island-wide blackout is imminent. We’re very close to see that happening. The workers at Power Plant 1 need relief. They’re exhausted. And the people are suffering from these blackouts. I ask the members to please, please act on the bill."

Sen. Maria T. Pangelinan, D-Saipan, said she also supports local hiring, "but CUC can’t hire locally."

CUC has said that the Legislature’s failure to allow the agency to retain its 20 guest workers in 2007 "dramatically" affected its power generation division’s operations. These nonresidents worked at the power plant as mechanical and electrical technicians.

CUC has yet to replace them and now most of its staff "have been overworked" and are planning to retire.

"We must train our own people for these jobs," Mendiola said.

Crisostimo, for his part, said the engines at Power Plant 1 are "junk — they’re not even worth fixing, and bringing in foreign workers might make things worse."

He described the power plant as "a ship that has already sunk."

Hiring mechanics, he added, "is not the answer — it will not fix the plant. They’re lying if they say that those 19 [guest workers] can fix the plant in two years. Every time we hire foreign workers and they leave, they also leave us with problems. It’s better to hire locals."

He proposed to send the bill back to committee, meet with CUC and ask the federal government to "send us a power barge."

Pangelinan said the bill’s goal is not to fix the engines, "but to maintain them and reduce the problems at the plant."

The requirement to hire locals, she added, should be directed to CUC management and not inserted as an amendment to the bill, which she described as "very urgently needed."

Pangelinan at the same time noted that CUC is required to hire local mechanics and technicians.

"But our local population is not big enough," she added.

Sen. Paul A. Manglona, R-Rota and chairman of the Committee on Public Utilities, Transportation and Communication, said enduring daily power outages "is like living in a Third World country."

"We need to do a lot of maintenance work [at the power plant]," he added. "The people will continue to suffer if we delay [the bill’s passage.] We have to work with CUC."

Reyes said some engines at the plant can still be repaired. "They’re just waiting for the parts — it takes too long to manufacture and ship them" to Saipan.

He added, "Right now if we don’t act, there will be a complete disaster. We can’t afford to be a disaster Legislature. We need to prevent disasters."

Mendiola said he was withdrawing his proposed amendment "considering the urgency of this bill."

Crisostimo, for his part, said: "I want CUC and the administration to ensure that our local workers will stay and I will support the passage of the bill without an amendment."

When it was his turn to vote on the bill, the Independent candidate for congressional delegate said, "For the CNMI, yes."

Reyes congratulated and thanked his colleagues for acting on the bill.

Introduced by Vice Speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, R-Saipan, H.B. 16-142 states that CUC "is unable to fill…essential positions with permanent resident or citizen employees at this time" and the hiring of guest workers until 2010 "is necessary to ensure the delivery of uninterrupted power, water and wastewater services to the people of the commonwealth."

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