Dominion Energy CEO Thomas Farrell talks about acquisition of SCANA
Dominion Energy, the utility giant looking to buy Cayce-based SCANA, garners a lot of respect from political leaders in its home state of Virginia, where it supplies power.
But the utility also faces criticism from public interest groups in Virginia over its rates, environmental protection record and connections to lawmakers in that state.
In recent years, Dominion has been embroiled in disputes ranging from whether it will clean up coal ash ponds to the powers that state regulators have over utility charges. The utility also continues to take heat for its plan to build a huge natural gas pipeline across parts of three states that some say is an unnecessary intrusion on rural communities.
Glen Besa, a former Sierra Club director in Virginia, said S.C. politicians should scrutinize Dominion carefully before they endorse its proposed acquisition of SCANA.
A longtime Dominion critic, Besa will be in Columbia for a news conference Tuesday that activists say is intended to "educate" the public about Dominion. He was invited by the S.C. Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, two of SCANA's harshest critics and skeptics about the proposed Dominion takeover.
“The bottom line is: You can’t believe what they say on its face,’’ Besa said of Dominion. “It is critically important for your legislators to execute extreme due diligence in understanding the nature of any deal.’’
Dominion bristles at Besa's criticisms, saying he is an out-of-the-loop activist whose complaints aren't valid.
"Glen Besa is retired and isn’t up on the latest about what has been going on with Dominion Energy,'' the utility said in an email Monday. " He is a long-time ax-grinder that looks for every opportunity to raise money for the Sierra Club while kicking Dominion Energy.''
Dominion's proposed takeover of SCANA is a result of the S.C. utility's failed decadelong effort to build two new nuclear reactors in Fairfield County. To compensate for the failed V.C. Summer nuclear reactor expansion project, Dominion, one of the country's largest utilities, has offered to give customers of SCE&G, SCANA's power-producing electric subsidiary, $1,000 refunds and lower utility rates — if its SCANA takeover is approved.
The S.C. Legislature is considering bills that could cause Dominion to withdraw its SCANA buyout offer.
Dominion said Monday said it has had support from some environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, on legislation that was good for the public.
But Besa and others say there is plenty of cause to have questions about Dominion. They say:
- The utility helped persuade the Virginia legislature to approve a 2016 bill that limited the ability of that state's utility commission to order refunds to customers who, critics say, had been overcharged. Dominion counters that it didn't overcharge anyone.
- The utility has failed to dig up and remove toxic coal ash from waste pits at coal-fired power plants. In contrast, SCANA subsidiary SCE&G has agreed to remove coal ash from all of its waste pits to keep industrial toxins from seeping into the groundwater.
Dominion says it is among the nation's leaders in coal-ash cleanup. The utility says six of its 11 ash ponds will be cleaned and closed by the end of the year.'
However, officials with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who are not part of Tuesday's news conference in Columbia, said Dominion has been reluctant to clean up coal ash that it dumped into unlined pits in Virginia. Law center attorneys Nate Benforado and Frank Holleman say Dominion only is planning to cap certain waste ponds, not dig up the ash and remove it. The law center has sued to force a cleanup in Virginia.
Benforado and Holleman said Dominion lags other Southeastern utilities in cleaning up coal-ash pollution.
"We pay a lot of attention to what is going on in the Southeast, and while we're seeing progress in South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina, we have not seen any such progress in Virginia,'' Benforado said.
Dominion, which supplies power to more than 2 million customers in Virginia and North Carolina, also remains under the gun for its decision to run a natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to southeastern North Carolina, near the S.C. border. A utility executive has said Dominion is interested in extending the pipeline into South Carolina.
Critics say the pipeline will disrupt communities, cause water pollution and increase natural gas use when it is not needed.
The company disputes that, saying the pipeline is needed to provide energy.
Dominion said many of the environmentalists' criticisms either are distorted or invalid.
The company said the bill that critics say tied the hands of regulators to order refunds actually froze in place utility rates that were 15 percent below the national average. Critics say those rates were higher than they should have been and the rate freeze guaranteed profits to the utility. But Dominion disputes the characterization that it overcharged customers.
What is unquestioned is that Dominion is a major contributor to the campaigns of Virginia legislators.
In one instance, the company donated $700,000 to three key legislators from 2003 through 2017, the Associated Press reported. Those lawmakers, a Democrat and two Republicans, have sponsored company-backed, industry-friendly legislation that Dominion wanted approved, according to the AP.
The utility, its executives and lobbyists handed out about $1 million in campaign contributions last year, the AP reported in January. The Richmond Times Dispatch reported similar findings.
Dominion discounts questions about its political clout in Virginia.
"Lawmakers don’t make policy decisions based on campaign contributions, and would find it insulting to suggest that,'' Dominion's statement said. "Contributions come from the employee-led (political action committee) a grassroots organization committed to good public policy. ''