The S.C. Supreme Court is not the right place to hear a complicated dispute between Santee Cooper and its largest customers — the state’s 20 electric cooperatives — over who should pay for the state-owned utility’s $4 billion nuclear blunder, the co-ops said Wednesday in a high court filing.
The fight over Santee Cooper’s future electric rates stem from its decision last July to abandon the $9 billion V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion project. The project’s collapse has sparked more than a dozen lawsuits against Santee Cooper and its majority partner on the nuclear project, SCE&G, that now are being heard by S.C. Circuit Court Judge John Hayes III.
In one of them, the state’s co-ops — on the contractual hook to pay $3 billion of Santee Cooper’s $4 billion in nuclear debt — argue their 1.5 million customers across South Carolina should not have to continue paying for power plants that do not exist.
Last month, Santee Cooper asked the Supreme Court to take that issue out of Hayes’ court and quickly rule the state agency has the legal right to charge its customers, including the co-ops, for its construction debt.
The co-ops fired back Wednesday.
Santee Cooper made “costly and long-hidden mistakes” that have unfairly hiked customers’ bills, the co-ops said in a court filing.
The co-ops say Hayes’ lower court is the proper forum to delve into the factual questions of alleged mismanagement of the V.C. Summer project, including when Santee Cooper learned the project was in danger and how long it concealed those problems from the public.
“All parties would be best served by proceeding with this litigation before Judge Hayes,” the co-ops said.
In their Wednesday filing, the co-ops noted the Supreme Court last Oct. 31 assigned Hayes to have “exclusive jurisdiction to hear and dispose of all pretrial motions and other pretrial matters” in any rate disputes stemming from the failed V.C. Summer project.
In an interview Wednesday, Mike Couick, president of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina trade association, said Santee Cooper’s legal strategy in recent months has been to delay a court ruling. For example, Santee Cooper hasn’t responded to requests for discovery, a step in the legal process that allows both sides to review information that otherwise could be withheld, he said.
“They’re not concerned about ratepayers,” Couick said. “They care about preserving the status quo.”
Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore disagreed.
“I can’t see how this can be construed as a delay tactic when we’re asking the state’s highest court to weigh on the matter,” said Gore. “Odds are, it would end up there anyway, and we’re probably cutting years out of the process. The bottom line is this is an important issue and it should be decided as quickly as possible.”
Gore said discovery documents were due Wednesday and the agency would meet that deadline.
The state’s business and political communities were stunned last July when Santee Cooper and SCE&G said they were abandoning the decadelong Summer expansion.
Since then, evidence has surfaced that both utilities knew of serious construction problems and cost overruns at the $9 billion project for years before they made the surprise announcement.
SCE&G, like Santee Cooper, is continuing to charge its customers extra each month to pay for the failed nuclear project’s costs, charges that could last for decades.
Hayes is overseeing more than a dozen cases against Santee Cooper and SCE&G, including some that seek refunds from the utilities for money that customers have paid already.
Hayes has handled the cases for roughly 10 months but has yet to rule on key issues, including whether a 2007 state law — the Base Load Review Act, which gave utilities a green light to hike electric rates for the nuclear project — is constitutional.
Another key issue before Hayes is whether his state court or the S.C. Public Service Commission has jurisdiction over rate disputes.