Santee Cooper chief executive Lonnie Carter Friday became the first executive to step down amid a political firestorm after the construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County was abandoned.
At a specially called meeting in Columbia, the state-owned utility’s board of directors announced Carter, 58, would retire after 35 years at Santee Cooper, including 13 as its president and chief executive.
Santee Cooper board chairman Leighton Lord said Carter will stay on the job while the utility searches for an interim replacement. Carter also will continue to testify before S.C. House and Senate committees investigating the multi-billion-dollar nuclear fiasco.
And, Lord said, Carter will continue to work with S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who is trying to sell the utility or its 45 percent stake in the unfinished twin reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station near Jenkinsville.
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“Santee Cooper is absolutely not rudderless,” Lord said.
A spokeswoman said details of Carter’s retirement pay package would not be available until early next week. Carter’s $527,187-a-year salary in 2016 was the highest of any state employee not involved in athletics.
“It’s a severance package that is contractually agreed to ahead of time,” Lord said.
Santee Cooper has come under fire since announcing, in June, it would abandon the V.C. Summer construction project.
Santee Cooper and Cayce-based SCE&G, the project’s majority owner, already have spent more than $9 billion on the project. And S.C. electric customers – including 2 million served by Santee Cooper – have paid billions in higher electric rates for the project.
The utilities have blamed the project’s collapse on the bankruptcy of the project’s contractor, Westinghouse; spiraling costs; and construction delays. But legislators say the power companies also deserve blame.
A source close to the situation told The State that Santee Cooper’s board informed Carter earlier this week that he either could step down or be fired.
But Lord denied Carter, who did not speak with media at Friday’s meeting, was forced out.
Lord said Carter had suggested that he retire once the V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project had been mothballed. Carter previously had agreed to hold off retiring until the reactors were built, Lord said.
“He believes and the board agrees that it’s the right time for his retirement and the right time to take a new direction for Santee Cooper,” Lord said.
Carter, at times tearfully, read a prepared statement expressing his pride in Santee Cooper. He said he would not answer questions from reporters after the meeting.
“I will always be proud to be a Santee Cooper retiree,” Carter said.
Carter’s retirement comes as Gov. McMaster works to restart the nuclear project by selling either Santee Cooper’s 45 percent stake in the unfinished V.C. Summer reactors or the state-owned utility itself.
Lord said Carter will remain part of a small team helping the governor’s office with those talks. That group also includes Lord; Mike Couick, chief executive officer of the Electrical Cooperatives of South Carolina; and Dukes Scott, director of the state Office of Regulatory Staff, which regulates utilities.
Lord confirmed Friday that Santee Cooper had hired a national consulting firm to help with its executive search and already has started interviewing candidates. An interim chief would serve six to nine months, and will be hired within the next three weeks, Lord said.
No other Santee Cooper executives are expected to retire or resign, he said.