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Would Bechtel report’s release have affected rate hikes for SCANA customers?

FILE: The S.C. House's VC Summer committee hears from SCANA CEO Kevin Marsh about the Bechtel report. 9/15/17
FILE: The S.C. House's VC Summer committee hears from SCANA CEO Kevin Marsh about the Bechtel report. 9/15/17

Challengers of SCANA’s handling of the doomed V.C. Summer nuclear project say they could have done more to block rate hikes had the Cayce-based utility not buried a report that diagnosed critical problems at the Fairfield County site.

Until earlier this month, SCANA made no mention of the February 2016 report, keeping it from state agencies that oversee utilities, claiming it was a confidential legal document.

The report, completed by Bechtel Corp. about 18 months before the nuclear expansion was abandoned, offered evidence the project was off the rails and made recommendations.

Had it known about those problems, the Electric Cooperatives of S.C. would have pushed state-owned Santee Cooper, the project’s junior partner, to keep lead contractor Westinghouse on a shorter leash, chief executive Mike Couick said.

Couick said would have threatened to rein in payments from the co-ops to Santee Cooper until Westinghouse provided a realistic construction schedule and price tag, which could have forced the contractor to pull out sooner.

“We don’t believe we should keep sending money to something when we don’t know how it’s going to play out,” said Couick, one of several people who negotiated a 2016 agreement that capped SCANA’s spending on the project.

The report also could have given SCANA watchdogs more leverage in negotiations over the project’s cost and the utility’s guaranteed profits, those challengers said.

Scott Elliott, a Columbia attorney who represents manufacturers that use large amounts of electricity, said he would have refused to make the 2016 agreement with SCANA, instead pushing to halt any more spending at the Fairfield County site.

Elliott said he would have argued the report showed that the $850 million that SCANA sought to recover in cost overruns in 2016 was a direct result of imprudent management – and therefore couldn’t be charged to power customers. The report also would have empowered state regulators to investigate whether the nuclear project should be shut down, he said.

Bob Guild, an attorney for the S.C. Sierra Club, said a capable Public Service Commission could have used the Bechtel report’s findings reach that conclusion two years ago.

However, the current commission probably would have ruled in favor of SCANA’s rate-hike requests anyway, given how consistently it rubber-stamped the utility’s proposals, Guild said.

“That’s why we’ve got a serious problem with how we regulate utilities in this state,” Guild said.

In hearings last Friday and Monday, SCANA chief executive Kevin Marsh said the utility considers the Bechtel report confidential.

He denied hiding important information from state regulators, including the Office of Regulatory Staff, saying the agency was aware of some of the problems detailed in the report. Marsh also said SCANA had been aware of the problems for years and had worked to address them.

Regulatory Staff director Dukes Scott would not comment Wednesday on whether his agency knew of those problems, saying he needed to talk with his staff. Scott said he would provide those answers at future State House hearings.

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks